"As Black research scientists, these are our observations on the Covid-19 vaccination and ethnicity"
Hadijatou Sallah is a research assistant and part of the group that developed the Imperial College London Covid-19 vaccine, a phase I/II trial that is nearly complete. Leon Mcfarlane is a senior Good Clinical Lab Practice (GCLP) research technician who helps manage the COVAC1 Imperial Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial. Together they reflect on what it’s been like to help develop and test a vaccine for Covid-19, underrepresentation of people from ethnic minority groups in research science and how they’ve come up against vaccine hesitancy among friends and family.
As Black research scientists, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there are very few Black people in our field. Much of this is due to the lack of encouragement or guidance from within for ethnic minority people to follow science careers. But there can also be a feeling that this is a world where you may not fit in. The perceived lack of representation earlier on in our careers led to a sense of not belonging and ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s important that, as a society, we do what’s needed to address this, not least because underrepresentation can cause racial bias in science and reinforce perceptions of racial bias in ethnic minority groups and other underrepresented communities.
It is a great start that Imperial College London runs events and has people in place to help address this, such as the Imperial Belonging Interview series – but we’d like to see more organisation-wide networking events. For a multicultural place of work, it’s important that thoughts and ideas from people of all backgrounds are communicated and discussed.
Our work on Covid-19 vaccines has also made us very aware of how important it is that all adults are vaccinated. Black people are more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people, with Black men twice as likely and other ethnic minorities also disproportionately affected. So it’s extremely worrying that take up of the vaccine has been comparatively low among ethnic minority communities.
We’ve both seen vaccine concerns in our own communities, and even among our friends and families. Because of real inequalities in health outcomes, and historical mistreatment of ethnic minority people in the name of science and medicine, there is a lack of trust. Thankfully, we’ve had the opportunity to reassure the people in our circles that the vaccines are in fact safe.
But many people from ethnic minority communities won’t know anyone who works in the kinds of roles we do – someone they trust who can give them the facts and help them to understand that having the vaccine is safe and the best thing they can do right now for their health. Without that, it can be all too easy to fall for the kinds of misinformation we’ve all seen circulating on social media.
Inaccurate information tends to get attention and it’s rife on social media. Sometimes, all it takes is an honest misunderstanding of a concept and this can snowball into something damaging; there have also been many Covid-19 conspiracy theories. As humans, it’s in our nature to be intrigued by building narratives and finding connections between things, even if they aren’t really there – like the outlandish conspiracy theories connecting Covid-19 and the 5G mobile phone network. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be easier to accept and understand than real science and can have a negative impact of disease control and prevention.
It’s important to understand that not everyone who’s concerned about having the vaccine is an ‘antivaxxer’. It’s natural that some people will be concerned about having a vaccine that’s new, and often these people just need the right information and answers to their questions to feel reassured. Public engagement from scientists can help by informing and creating understanding in communities, but it is important that there is representation of all groups.
It’s important to understand that the issues are deep rooted and can be difficult to tackle. Among some in Black communities, for example there’s an inherent distrust of authority due to discriminatory treatment and the way Black people are portrayed – or ignored – in social media and the news. We don’t have all the answers to this, but hope that greater diversity across science, the media and institutions such as the NHS, government and police will help to build trust among communities that don’t see themselves represented at all levels of society.
"There needs to be more creativity in terms of how we engage with these communities, and this means engaging with community leaders, including religious leaders, who are often the most trusted people in these communities."
It’s been really concerning to see that some people are distrustful of potentially life-saving medicine. But there are also reasons to be hopeful. This could be a massive success story if vaccinations have a major role in globally helping us get back to normality. It would emphasise the need of prevention over cure regarding infections and highlight the importance of immunology and vaccine research.
One of the really interesting things about the pandemic has been that many people have gained more interest in science and in understanding how their immune systems work. We’re bombarded with infectious pathogens every single day, yet most of us never consider how our bodies actually protect us. We hope that this keen interest will continue, not just for the Covid-19 vaccine rollout but beyond it. With a major success, more of the population will be engaged to seek out information in science and vaccine development, thus more interest in learning about the field.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a terrible tragedy, but it has helped to expand our understanding of vaccines and immunology, and has been an example of what scientists and governments can achieve when we work together. We hope one more benefit will be that science – and scientists – come to be seen as more ‘human’ by the public. And it’s a happy thought that the next generation of scientists are being inspired by possibilities of a career in this exiting and rewarding field. We hope they’ll come from a diverse mix of backgrounds.
Find out more about Imperial College London’s Covid-19 vaccine research.