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Protesters slam lack of diversity in vaccine trial, but Brigham disputes numbers

Black residents and allies converged on Brigham and Women’s Hospital to protest what they say is hypocrisy in action in the hospital’s handling of patient recruitment in COVID-19 vaccine trials.
Black residents and allies converged on Brigham and Women’s Hospital to protest what they say is hypocrisy in action in the hospital’s handling of patient recruitment in COVID-19 vaccine trials.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

A small group of protesters gathered outside Brigham and Women’s Hospital Monday to criticize what they characterized as inadequate efforts by the hospital to enroll Black patients in a clinical trial of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine.

Members of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition said only 4 percent of volunteers for the trial of a vaccine developed partly by Cambridge biotech Moderna are Black, but a hospital spokeswoman disputed that.

Black residents represent about 7 percent of the state’s population, but their rate of positive COVID-19 cases is double that, at 14.4 percent, the Baker administration said in June.

Priscilla Flint-Banks, one of the leaders of the protest group, said her organization met a couple of weeks ago with officials at the hospital, one of about 90 clinical sites nationwide for the late-stage trial of the vaccine. Among the requests of activists was that Brigham and Women’s make sure the vaccine study involved “doctors and researchers that look like us,” she said.

“We know what happened in Tuskegee. We know what happened with Henrietta Lacks,” Flint-Banks said at the protest.

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Those were references to two of the most notorious cases of medical research abuse in US history: The decades-long Tuskegee Syphilis Study that was exposed in 1972, and the cells taken from a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 during treatment for cervical cancer and then cultured for a human cell line without her consent.

Black residents and allies converged on Brigham & Women’s Hospital to protest what they say is hypocrisy in action in the hospital’s handling of patient recruitment in COVID-19 vaccine trials.
Black residents and allies converged on Brigham & Women’s Hospital to protest what they say is hypocrisy in action in the hospital’s handling of patient recruitment in COVID-19 vaccine trials.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

However, Erin McDonough, a spokeswoman for the Brigham, disputed Flint-Banks’s figures for the percentage of Black participants in the vaccine trial at the hospital. In fact, she said, more than a third of current trial participants are from communities of color, and 12 percent are Black.

“Our community outreach team has been engaging with surrounding neighborhoods to raise awareness about the critical importance of ensuring that clinical trial participants represent the diverse populations which the medicines that are under investigation have the potential to benefit,” she said.

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She added: “From the outset of the study we have made efforts to ensure that a diverse slate of physicians and researchers are involved, including Black doctors. Our research assistants, who are the primary points of contact for study participants, reflect the diversity of our community, with seven native Spanish speakers and two African Americans.”



Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.