Dr. Anthony Fauci praises Navajo Nation, talks vaccine trial

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, April 10, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Mary Annette Pember

Navajo citizens still leery of COVID-19 vaccine trials

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed vaccine concerns with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer in a virtual town hall Monday.

Although Lizer asked one question about the safety of the current phase 3 Pfizer COVID-19 trials being offered to Navajo citizens, the topic dominated comments from listeners, eliciting more than 1,400 responses during the approximately hourlong meeting.

Many people continue to express suspicion about the safety of the testing. Critics also cite a lack of transparency by the Navajo government in the vetting process for the trials.

Several listeners expressed exasperation with others' negative comments. “Stop bickering and pay attention!”

Many people wanted to know details about the trial process.

Others wanted to know how much money Navajo government leaders would receive for allowing the trials, and many echoed previous complaints that the government was using Navajo people as "guinea pigs."

According to Nez, including Native Americans and other ethnic minorities in vaccine trials is important.

“Not every vaccine works for every nationality or body type,” he said.

Public health experts say vaccine trials “should have participation reflective of the makeup of the country,” according to Cronkite News.

Emmanuel Peprah, an assistant professor of global health at New York University and former National Institutes of Health official, told Cronkite: “A lot of African Americans, Black and brown people have died from this coronavirus. If we do not participate in a large enough sample size so that we’re representative, we won’t know how these various vaccines will interact with us and give the clinicians … enough data.”

(Previous story: Vaccine trial triggers outrage from Lummi, Navajo tribes)

Christine Ami, Diné, faculty member of the Social and Behavioral Sciences department at Diné College, a past critic of the Navajo government’s lack of transparency in the vaccine trial vetting process was blocked, once again, from making comments.

Fauci assured Lizer that an independent safety data and safety board monitors the trials. In the case of an adverse reaction, the board has the power to pause the trial, as happened recently in Great Britain with the AtraZenica vaccine trials.

Screen shot of Dr. Anthony Fauci giving remarks during  Navajo Nation President Jonathon Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer's town hall meeting Sept. 21, 2020.
Screenshot of Dr. Anthony Fauci giving remarks during Navajo Nation President Jonathon Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer's town hall meeting Monday.

The AstraZenica trial was paused after two trial participants in Great Britain developed serious neurological illnesses. Although the trials have resumed in Great Britain, Brazil, India and South Africa, they are still on hold in the U.S., according to the New York Times. The company has come under fire for refusing to divulge details about participant’s illnesses in Great Britain

“The pause [in the AstraZenica trial] is a manifestation of how the system is working,” Fauci said.

Before the vaccine is approved for use by the public, the Food and Drug Administration will carefully scrutinize the data and make the final decision, according to Fauci.

“So we should feel confident that since these things are transparent, the vaccine will not be released to the public before it’s proven safe and effective,” Fauci said.

Laura Hammitt, director of infectious disease programs at the John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, who is overseeing the Pfizer vaccine trials on the Navajo Nation, also spoke during the meeting. She reiterated statements made to Indian Country Today in an earlier interview regarding the importance of including Native people in vaccine trials and failure of past drug and vaccine trials to do so.

Screen shot of Dr. Laura Hammitt, John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health during Navajo Nation town hall meeting.
Screen shot of Dr. Laura Hammitt, John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health during Navajo Nation town hall meeting.

“The Navajo Nation has participated in numerous clinical vaccine trials in the past, including the Hib vaccine,” Hammitt said. The Hib, or haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine, reduces the rate of meningitis, pneumonia and epiglottitis.

According to Hammitt, the decision to move forward with the trials were made by the Navajo Nation human research review board.

Members of the board include: Beverly Becenti-Pigman, chair; David Begay, PhD; Rebecca Izzo-Manymules, PhD; Kalvin White, PhD; Ursula Knoki-Wilson who has a masters in nursing and public health; Dr. Sonya Shin; Nanibaa’ Garrison, PhD; and Delvin Yazzie. Becenti-Pigman did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.

“Overall, the trial has enrolled over 25,000 people in the U.S.,” Hammitt said.

Hammitt explained that participation in the trial is voluntary; 50 percent of participants will receive the vaccine and 50 percent will receive a placebo in the form of saline solution. All participants will be monitored for a period of two years, according to Hammitt.

Dr. Jill Jim, director of the Navajo Department of Health, also joined the call. “I want to assure you [Dr. Fauci] that we will continue to abide by public health professionals and the medical society here in the U.S. going forward,” she said.

Neither Nez nor Lizer responded to an email requesting comment.

Fauci praised the Navajo Nation for its efforts in fighting the COVID-19 virus through following public health measures such as wearing masks and limiting in-person gatherings.

“I believe that the rest of the country can look at the Navajo Nation as a model for turning things around by adhering to the guidelines of avoiding infection,” Fauci said.

The Navajo Nation, along with other tribal nations, were hit hard by the novel coronavirus. Cases surged in the hundreds early on in the pandemic and dropped to the single digits on Aug. 25. In the last few weeks, the number of new cases are fluctuating between zero and 25. As of Sept. 20, the tribe has 10,119 positive cases and 548 deaths in total.

He noted that the fall and winter months will be especially challenging as the ability to hold activities indoors decreases and the flu season begins.

“We want to see the baseline of the country down as low as we see on the Navajo Nation,” Fauci added.

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Indian Country Today partnered with John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in May to compile a comprehensive COVID-19 database for Indian Country. 

Mary Annette Pember, citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is national correspondent for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @mapember. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Pember loves film, books and jingle dress dancing.

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