By Liv Osby
National polls show that anywhere from 51 percent to 64 percent of Americans would be willing to be vaccinated against coronavirus.
But the number is far lower for minorities.
Some 49 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of Hispanics say they won’t take the vaccine, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
About 39 percent of Blacks cited safety concerns in the poll, while 35 percent cited distrust of the health care system.
That distrust goes back decades to the Tuskegee Experiment, a federal study that allowed syphilis in Black men to go untreated so scientists could observe its progression.
And it affects the way many African Americans view the health system today, with low participation clinical trials - just 5 percent to 7 percent nationally – among the consequences, according to SE Life Sciences, a trade group representing life science companies in the Southeast.
So the group has launched SE Color, a new initiative designed to expand clinical trial diversity.
Meanwhile, SCBIO, the Palmetto State’s life sciences group, has been busy with its own plans to increase diversity on its boards and in life sciences generally.
"In the middle of a pandemic and a social justice revolution, diversity has become a big topic," said Jason Rupp, CEO of SE Life Sciences.
"We have an organization … to support women in (medical technical fields) to broaden into life sciences generally," he told Greenville Business Magazine.
"And this year, we founded SE Color … which is the next step of diversity to widen and be more deliberate across the board."
More than simply supporting minorities in life sciences, the group wanted to do something that can make a big difference now, he said. They chose improving minority recruitment in clinical trials.
"Most trials are with white men. Generally, minorities - or women for that matter - are untested populations," Rupp said. "So there are medications that really haven’t been tested on every population."
And there are genetic differences and variations in how different people react to drugs, for instance, he said.
Rupp added that there aren’t as many Black doctors involved in clinical trials, either. So the group is focusing on educating both them and minority communities to encourage participation.
Plans call for webinars and other events, radio campaigns, and partnering with state organizations, like SC BIO, to spread the word, he said.
"The immediate goal is education and helping build trust in the community," he said. "The ultimate goal is for minorities to be equally represented according to their population. It’s really exciting."
SC BIO was successful in advancing gender diversity, said CEO Sam Konduros, noting that the board was chaired and vice chaired by women the past three years.
"But it hit us pretty hard that last year, we had only one underrepresented minority on our board of 35," he said.
"We do now have three ... and two on the executive committee," he added. "But we also had to ask, what is it about our practices, our design as an organization, that might be creating unintended obstacles to achieving more minority board leaders."
Konduros said that while there’s a smaller pool of underrepresented minority leaders among member companies, he wondered whether SC BIO was being deliberate enough about trying to ensure diversity.
Initially, he said, SC BIO will ask its members, including research universities and health care systems, to nominate minority leaders to become part of a task force to tackle the issue and serve on a board and executive committee to engage in a meaningful way.
SC BIO also wants to foster solutions that directly address health care disparities and work with schools to develop strategies to increase awareness about career options in life sciences among minorities, he said.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this horrific pandemic … coupled with a social justice movement that became very visible and powerful across the nation, is what really catalyzed us," he said.
"We had to start with where are we today. And we want to do better than that," he added. "But we feel there are some measurable outcomes already being achieved just by saying this is truly important."
Dr. Cedrek McFadden, a colorectal surgeon with Prisma Health who works to advance underrepresented minorities in medicine, said both initiatives are admirable.
"It's important to include all groups who are going to benefit from advice, or medication or therapy, in the testing of those products because it can have some impact on how it's going to work in a subgroup of patients," he said of SE Color. "You have to have accurate representation of who's going to benefit from the work."
McFadden said that it's important to recognize the composition of boards as SC BIO has done, but that achieving diversity can only be accomplished through an intentional approach.
"People often want to see diversity, but you really have to be deliberate or purposeful, or else it may never happen," he said. "Kudos to them for taking that step."