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Push on to test vaccine in diverse groups

A health promoter from CASA, a Hispanic advocacy group, tries to enroll Latinos as volunteers to test a potential COVID-19 vaccine at a farmers market in Takoma Park, Md., on Sept. 9. The Associated Press

TAKOMA PARK, Md. — In front of baskets of tomatoes and peppers, near a sizzling burrito grill, the “promotoras” stop masked shoppers at a busy Latino farmers market: Want to test a COVID-19 vaccine?

Aided by Spanish-speaking “health promoters” and Black pastors, a stepped-up effort is underway around the U.S. to recruit minorities to ensure potential vaccines against the scourge are tested in the populations most ravaged by the virus.

Many thousands of volunteers from minority groups are needed for huge clinical trials underway or about to begin. Scientists say a diverse group of test subjects is vital to determining whether a vaccine is safe and effective for everyone and instilling broad public confidence in the shots once they become available.

The expanded outreach by vaccine researchers and health officials is getting a late start in communities that, because of a history of scientific exploitation and racism, may be the most reluctant to roll up their sleeves.

Just getting the word out takes time.

“I didn’t know anything about the vaccine until now,” said Ingrid Guerra, who signed up last week at the farmers market in Takoma Park, Maryland, outside the nation’s capital.

The health promoters from CASA, a Hispanic advocacy group, explained how the research process works and how a vaccine could help end the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not afraid,” Guerra decided. “I want to participate for me, my family, my people.”

University of Maryland researchers agreed to set up a temporary lab at CASA’s local community center so that people struggling financially wouldn’t have to travel to participate.

The hardest part, many experts say, is gaining trust.

“A white guy from NIH is probably not going to be as effective by far in convincing somebody from a minority community that this is the kind of science they might want to trust, as would a doctor from their own community,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Recruiting African Americans in particular will be “a heavy, heavy lift,” Collins said, because of the legacy of mistrust after the infamous Tuskegee experiment, when Black men in Alabama were left untreated for syphilis as part of a study that ran from the 1930s into the 1970s.

Some Black doctors, too, are wrestling with doubts. Dr. Tina Carroll-Scott, medical director of the South Miami Children’s Clinic, described a “really, really tough” time, considering the political influence that the Trump administration has exerted on long-trusted health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.

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