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Pharmacist serving on national commission vetting COVID-19 vaccines

As clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines are underway, mistrust in the health-care system and concerns of speed over safety have amplified across the nation, especially in the Black community.

Now, a panel of Black doctors has organized to independently vet the vaccines as the National Medical Association COVID-19 Commission on Vaccines and Therapeutics. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Lakesha Butler, PharmD, is serving as the commission’s only pharmacist, alongside seven physicians.

Butler is a clinical professor in the SIUE School of Pharmacy Department of Pharmacy Practice and the SOP Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She currently serves as immediate past president of the National Pharmaceutical Association.

“The appointed group will evaluate potential treatment options for COVID-19, including vaccines currently in clinical trials for safety and efficacy, and then evaluate the clinical trial processes,” said Butler, who will lend her expertise as a drug expert and trained immunizer with a clear understanding of vaccines and experience in evaluating clinical trials.

“I have built relationships with various groups including the NMA, who is leading this panel effort,” Butler explained. “I reached out to the president of NMA encouraging the addition of a pharmacist to the panel, and was asked if I would be that pharmacist.”

Butler notes the concern that has arisen surrounding Operation Warp Speed, an initiative of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Operation Warp Speed has a goal of producing 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by early 2021.

“The name of the operation has caused some concern, because the thought is that the speed of production will take precedence over safety and efficacy,” Butler said. “This concern is especially prevalent in the Black community due to pre-existing mistrust in the healthcare system. The heightened and warranted concern of Blacks pertaining to the current COVID-19 clinical trials, and not only a pending COVID-19 vaccine, but vaccines in general, stems from hundreds of years of systemic racism in healthcare and the overall mistreatment of Blacks in this country dating back to 1619.”

“I, along with many Black pharmacists and physicians, am skeptical about the COVID-19 vaccine process and getting involved in any clinical trials,” she added. “Black healthcare providers are trusted in the Black communities. We cannot expect our Black patients, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to health inequities, to want to participate if we are not confident. Research proves that racial concordance between physician and patient results in greater health outcomes due to improved trust.”

Butler will meet weekly with members of the national COVID-19 commission to advance their critical work in addressing racial inequities in healthcare.

“This work is personal for me, because I have loved ones who have been mistreated and have mistrust for the healthcare system,” Butler explained. “I am committed to addressing racial and health inequities through my national and community service, teaching and research.”

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