Scientists developing coronavirus disease vaccines say it is essential to recruit various volunteers, especially Native Americans, who have been hit hard by the pandemic. This is why Pfizer has set up sites for its ongoing clinical trial in the Navajo and White Mountain Apache nations. But it’s not easy to mend decades of broken trust between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous scientists. Historical traumas in the name of research remain fresh in many memories. Melissa Sevigny of KNAU reports that some practitioners of traditional DinÃ© medicine and Western medicine want to bridge this gap.
More than 44,000 people around the world have volunteered for the Pfizer study; half received the new vaccine and half received a placebo. One percent of these volunteers are Native Americans, including Derrick Leslie. He works in emergency operations for the White Mountain Apache tribe.
âTo have a front row seat for all the heartache, pain and suffering that this virus has caused my peopleâ¦ it really is my way of contributing to the greater good,â Leslie says.
But Leslie’s family didn’t see it that way. They told him that the vaccine was dangerous and that the people behind it could not be trusted. Leslie tried to allay their fears. âThe more opportunities indigenous peoples have to be included in research, the healthier the world will be,â he says. “People will always be scared until you show them differently.”
Many Aboriginal people say they have good reason to be suspicious of doctors and scientists. Christine Ami (om-nee), anthropologist at DinÃ© College, points to a long legacy of research abuse. âWhen we take a look at this arena and understand that we had no voice and no one gave us a choiceâ¦â She talks about past traumas. In the 1960s and 1970s, doctors sterilized Aboriginal women without their consent. In the 1990s, scientists abused Havasupai blood samples. Friend says the list goes back centuries.
She’s not against research, but she says it needs to be done the right way, with informed consent and community support. “How do you make it into a simple checkbox?” How to make it the priority? “
Pfizer partnered with the Johns Hopkins’ Center for American Indian Health and requested two forms of consent for the clinical trial, first from the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board and then from individual volunteers. . At the Chinle study site, Naiyahnikai Gorman guides members of the Navajo tribe through the lengthy consent process, which explains the risks and benefits to participants.
Gorman sees the vaccine as a way out of the pandemic. “The word that comes to my mind in Navajo is azee ‘. This word means medicine. Whenever we have been through hardship or suffering, there has always been a medicine that comes and helps people.”
Pfizer says its vaccine has been shown to be 95% effective in preventing COVID-19. But anxiety over the clinical trial persists, in part because it happened so quickly – a response to the speed and devastation of the pandemic. Medicine man David Tsosie said that the DinÃ© HataaÅii Association, a group of herbalists and healers, had not been consulted until the trial was approved by the review committee, âand therefore it There were concerns from the doctors about: what are they talking about, these vaccines? What is it about ?”
Tsosie contacted Johns Hopkins and local universities for an explanation of how the vaccine was made. He was reassured: nothing in the process goes against Navajo beliefs. It helped that some of the scientists who explained the vaccine to doctors were themselves indigenous, such as Naomi Lee, a citizen of the Seneca Nation and a researcher at Northern Arizona University.
Lee says, âI think the trust, oh, there’s an indigenous researcher doing something very similar in his own lab, helped allay some of their concerns. Do I think we have fully convinced them, no. will help them have a little more confidence in what is going on with the vaccine itself. ”
Lee is part of the COVID-19 Prevention Network, which offers advice to pharmaceutical companies on how to conduct ethical clinical trials. Her advice includes: Having clear and specific consent forms; speak the language; and consult with traditional healers. Lee says building trust isn’t easy, but she believes real change will happen when Indigenous people aren’t just invited to volunteer for clinical trials; they are also the scientists who direct them.