Public Health

COVID-19 vaccine trials: How doctors can diversify volunteer pool

Sara Berg, MS , News Editor

There is an ongoing need for more diverse candidates to participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials. This is because COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black, LatinX and Native American communities.  These communities are also the most vaccine hesitant. However, doctors and other health professionals on the front lines who are also at higher risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection can take part in clinical trials to test vaccine candidates’ efficacy and use their participation to lead by example to encourage their Black, LatinX and Native American patients to volunteer as well.

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Scientists, doctors and other experts have been working tirelessly to develop a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine with several already past the first phases of testing for safety, dosing and response. However, to ensure these vaccines are effective in a broader population, phase 3 studies are needed. This requires millions of volunteers, including physicians and other health professionals.

The AMA is working with the COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN), a project of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to encourage more people to volunteer for SARS-CoV-2 vaccine trials to help end the uncertainty and find a vaccine for all. The CoVPN aims to engage community stakeholders to address COVID-19 related inequities and health equity.

While COVID-19 vaccine trials continue to move at a rapid pace, participation from people in communities hardest hit by SARS-CoV-2 infection is critical. This includes:

  • Essential workers.
  • Those who live in densely populated residential environments.
  • People living or working in congregated living facilities, such as nursing homes or long-term care.
  • Older individuals and people with underlying health conditions.
  • Patients who are Black, Latinx or Native American.

CoVPN also is encouraging patients and physicians to consider volunteering for various clinical studies of monoclonal antibodies. Here are four reasons why physicians and other health professionals—as well as their patients—should consider volunteering for COVID-19 vaccine trials.

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It is essential to have a diverse pool of volunteers from communities disproportionately devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If physicians who are Black, Latinx or Native American volunteer, that action could encourage others who look like them to get involved too. The vaccines must be tested in a diverse group that is representative of the general public and that means people of all genders and races.

When physicians share their personal decisions, it can play a big role in encouraging patients to volunteer for COVID-19 vaccine trials. This is especially true if the doctor has already volunteered. Participation will also ensure that physicians and other health professionals are confident about the safety and effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine, allowing them to lead by example.

“If I can help even one other person enroll in a trial that helps us come to a solution to the worst pandemic of our lifetimes, if I’m able to answer questions, if I’m able to quell fear with facts, I will do that. I can’t do that in darkness,” said AMA member Louito Edje, MD, who is participating in the Moderna trial. “You have to lead by example in the light.”

Learn more from the AMA about why as a Black doctor, Dr. Edje volunteered for a coronavirus vaccine trial.

Physicians and other health professionals are at higher risk of infection and can also become inadvertent vehicles of transmission. For example, at a hospital in Houston, 5.4% of those directly caring for COVID-19 patients tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, compared with 0.6% among those not in direct contact, according to a JAMA research letter. This shows that there is transmission from patients or co-workers.

Because front-line physicians and other health professionals are at an increased risk for COVID-19, they are prime volunteers for the vaccine trials. This helps researchers learn if the vaccine effectively prevents infection in people who are exposed to the community on a regular basis.

Learn more from the AMA about how the FDA plans to build physician trust for COVID-19 vaccine.

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It might sound simple, but it is vitally important for physicians to volunteer for clinical trials because the race is on for a COVID-19 vaccine. Physicians who volunteer will contribute to the advancement of medicine.

Physicians will also provide researchers with important scientific information in a safe and confidential environment. Without volunteers, there will be no vaccine for anyone.

Read this Q&A with AMA member Julia Garcia-Diaz, MD, principal investigator for two COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials at Ochsner Health in New Orleans.

The AMA has created an ethics resource page, "Vaccine trials and healthy volunteers,” that offers expert advice on trial design and informed consent. Citing numerous opinions from the AMA Code of Medical Ethicsthe page provides a concise yet comprehensive guide for physicians at all levels of experience.