Rutgers University in New Jersey has been at the forefront of identifying ways to reach out to and engage underrepresented and at-risk populations, including ethnic and racial minorities. Set in an incredibly diverse and dynamic state, local research teams understand the importance of involving diverse participation in research generally, and in particular, for the COVID-19-focused vaccine candidates. In February, even before the onset of the pandemic, TrialSite showcased some of these strategies, such as various community engagement models that evidenced success for HIV-based research. One impressive principal investigator, Shobha Swaminathan, an associate professor of medicine employed at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) and medical director of the Infectious Disease Practice at Newark’s University Hospital, was outspoken before about the need for more minority participation in the growing research as a care option imperative. Since the pandemic, Dr.Swaminathan reminds all that minorities face even greater danger from COVID-19. Thus, the importance of participation in therapeutic and vaccine research, such as the studies sponsored by Moderna, investigating the vaccine candidate known as mRNA-1273.
Tensions Mounted in Inner-City New Jersey
On Sept. 1, TrialSite chronicled that across key New Jersey inner-city communities, Black Americans expressed concerns about the mRNA-1273 clinical trial, expressing apprehension about participation in the major clinical trial conducted at University Hospital Newark as well as Hackensack University Medical Center.
In fact, in the weeks preceding that month, the tensions mounted to the point that the Mayor of Newark had to address the topic, acknowledging past research injustices targeting the Black community’s involvement. Ras Baraka also expressed to residents of Newark as well that the trial was voluntary and emphasized the higher risks some demographic cohorts faced, including African Americans.
A Key Objective: Community Engagement
Driving more participation and engagement across minority groups represents a key challenge in the precision health movement moving forward. Advanced vaccines, such as Moderna’s mRNA-1273, a messenger RNA-based investigational candidate, represents a novel approach and, thus, should be tested by a diverse crosscut of American society.
Dr. Swaminathan knows this all too well, as she is part of an effort in New Jersey and beyond to bring health equity to research and clinical care. This endeavor rests on the core foundation of ongoing community engagement, which academic medical centers such as Rutgers can support as part of a broader trust-building effort between the medical community and minority communities.
Recently Kithmy Wickramasinghe showcased the work of Dr. Swaminathan and Rutgers in the Daily Targum, the official student newspaper of Rutgers. TrialSite shares more to consider engagement programs at their trial sites.
The Goal: Health Equity
In the end, the more that clinical research programs embrace and involve minority groups, as well as other traditionally underrepresented groups, the more that those research sponsors developing therapies, diagnostics and vaccines targeting COVID-19, and other dangerous diseases, will accumulate greater amounts of data representing, in the aggregate, the diversity of the entire American population. All things being equal, this will inform the safety and efficacy for not only one chosen demographic but for all.
Shobha Swaminathan, MD, Associate Professor, Clinical
Call to Action: For those research centers and sponsors interested in learning how to diversify research programs better, consider reaching out to Rutgers to learn about their programs. Read the Daily Targum article to learn more about why some groups are skeptical about research.