On Sept. 8, 2020, a spokesperson for AstraZeneca, one of the companies developing a vaccine for COVID-19, said that their Phase 3 trials of the vaccine have been put on hold because one of the participants in the United Kingdom suffered a serious unexplained side effect. This came at a time when schools are starting and businesses are reopening, and the hopes of a reliable and safe vaccine was on the mind of everyone.
The frenetic search for a vaccine has made it easy fodder to be politicized in such a way that it has become a tool to disparage opposing factions of the political spectrum. The incumbent assures that the vaccine will be developed in record time, dubbing his initiative as Operation Warp Speed. The opposing camp is suspicious that the incumbent is rushing the development of the vaccine so frantically that the vaccine would be rolled out by skipping normal protocols, compromising the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. To this, the incumbent has countered saying that they “should apologize for the reckless anti-vaccine rhetoric.”
The vaccine should not be used as a bargaining chip between one faction or another. It is neither for one particular group of people over another, nor is it to benefit one country over another. A vaccine should be developed to save all of mankind. Unfortunately, it has been embroiled in a tatter of misinformation. The result is that now no one seems to have much confidence in a vaccine itself. All of this is happening without the guarantee that a vaccine would ever come to fruition. A poll conducted by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago in mid-May showed that only 50% of the population in the U.S. say that they would be willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Of the Black people who account for a quarter of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., 40% said that they would not get the vaccine.
I watched The View on Sept. 9, 2020, and Sunny Hostin, one of the hosts of the show gave her opinion on whether she would take the vaccine when one becomes available. She had a discussion with Floyd, a good friend from law school, who voiced his doubts about a vaccine saying, “I got one word for you. Tuskegee.” That, Hostin said, struck her to her core. Let me offer what shot through Hostin’s mind when his friend said Tuskegee.
Hostin’s friend was referring to a 1932 study called the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Its formal title was, “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” The Tuskegee Institute in conjunction with the U.S. Public Health Service began a study in Macon County, Alabama to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of finding a treatment. The study involved 600 black men, of which 399 were infected with syphilis and 201 were not infected. Researchers told their subjects that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a colloquial term to suggest a slew of ailments such as anemia, fatigue, including syphilis. However, these researchers never intended to treat their subjects. It was never the objective of the study. The study was to observe what would happen to their subjects with syphilis when left untreated. In exchange for participating in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. This study was also conducted without the
patient’s informed consent. At its inception, the study was scheduled to last six years. It continued for forty years until 1972.
The Tuskegee research represents one of the most egregious atrocities in U.S. history. I say “most egregious” for the researcher’s disdain for people’s health and livelihood, and that the study was conducted under the direction and full acknowledgement of the U.S. Public Health Service. From the beginning, the clinical study could not be conducted without unwitting people, and without divulging key issues that might impact a participant’s health. The 600 subjects were mainly impoverished African-American male sharecroppers. These men were led to believe that they were being treated for syphilis. But, in fact, researchers disguised their diagnostic procedures as treatment, and offered only placebos and ineffective treatments, grossly misleading them. All of this continued under the spurious agreement that they were being provided free medical care. None of the participants were informed of their diagnoses. This non-disclosure also left others who were intimate with these subjects vulnerable. Participants were also not informed of the disease’s extreme danger, that syphilis can cause blindness, deafness, mental illness, bone deterioration, heart disease, damage to the nervous system, eventually leading to death. Although a therapeutic for syphilis was found during the forty-year history of the study, none of the men were treated. There was no intention to cure them. While penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in 1947, for twenty-five years, the subjects of the study were left uninformed of their disease, and untreated as well. Researchers withheld information and misled their subjects. Treatment programs were readily available to other residents in the area, yet the participants in the study were discouraged from accessing them.
The supervisors of the Tuskegee Study continued their study until their atrocity was revealed by a 27 year-old epidemiologist, Peter Buxton. Buxton was hired by the Public Health Service to interview patients with sexually transmitted diseases. It was through these interviews that he learned of the participants in the Tuskegee Study. Thoroughly disillusioned, Buxton filed an official protest with the Service’s Division of Venereal Diseases in November of 1966. His protest was rejected on the basis that the study was still incomplete. He filed another protest two years later in November of 1968. Once again, his protest fell on deaf ears, and was ruled as irrelevant. Finally, in 1972, Buxton went to the Washington Star (later purchased by The Washington Post). A story authored by Jean Heller was published on July 25, 1972. The following day, it made the front page of The New York Times. This prompted Sen. Edward Kennedy to call for Congressional hearings which finally led to the termination of the Tuskegee Study. This eventually led to the 1979 Belmont Report which set guidelines for the ethical protection of human subjects in biomedical and behavioral research. It serves as a reference for institutional review boards that review research proposals endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
On May 16, 1997, President Clinton publicly apologized for the U.S. government’s responsibility in this study. This apology came almost sixty-five years after the Tuskegee
Study was begun. Also, a program to provide comprehensive lifetime health care for the widows and offspring of the participants was mandated by Congress.
I have highlighted the story of the Tuskegee Study because it is not a fabricated story offered by a politician. It actually happened, and the study was sustained for forty long years. What the Tuskegee Study teaches is that people’s health or anyone’s life should never be used for one’s personal gain or agenda. Human life cannot be compared to any inanimate thing, no matter how precious it may appear to be.
In his writing, Jiri Kuyo Go-sho (事理供養御書), Nichiren Shonin wrote, “Life is the most important asset among all assets. Even within the vastness of Three Thousand GreatWorlds, there is nothing that can replace life.”† (いのちと申す物は一切の財の中に第一の財なり。遍満三千界無有直身命ととかれて、三千大千世界にみてゝ候財をいのち にはかへぬ事に候なり。) In other words, life is the most precious phenomenon in this world. If we agree this to be correct, rushing to create a vaccine which may turn out to be ineffective and unsafe really amounts to a compromise of people’s health, and devalues the sanctity of human life. Putting out a vaccine that is ineffective and or unsafe is equivalent to providing syphilis patients with placebos, and lying that they will eventually feel better.
A life, even just one life, is not expendable or replaceable. It is a priori to all other predications. We have nothing without life. If there is no life, there can be no aspirations of fame, money, or power. The development and production of a vaccine should only exist to support life, not to be used as some bargaining chip to further any one party’s agenda.