Navajo Nation takes part in COVID vaccine study

In this April 20 photo, Dr. Diana Hu, left, and a colleague wear personal protective equipment as they work in the COVID-19 screening and testing tent in the parking lot at Tuba City Regional Health Care on the Navajo reservation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Dalton Walker

‘If this study finds that the vaccine is effective against COVID-19, then American Indian and Alaska Native individuals and Indigenous people around the world would benefit’

Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

The Navajo Nation, which has lost more than 500 citizens to the COVID-19 pandemic, is on the frontlines of a volunteer vaccine study.

Only a few days after reporting no new daily cases for the first time in months, the tribe announced Friday that it is participating in a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine trial on a patient-volunteer basis.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez regularly updates cases each day via social media. He reported no new cases on Tuesday. The next day he reported 12 new cases, still a dramatic drop from weeks past.

Several potential vaccines are in development, and some are in clinical trials on humans. But there is currently no licensed vaccine that prevents COVID-19. In a statement, Nez said it’s important that the Navajo people have an opportunity to participate in a Phase 3 trial.

“If this study finds that the vaccine is effective against COVID-19, then American Indian and Alaska Native individuals and Indigenous people around the world would benefit,” Nez said. “We want to do everything we can to keep our elders and people healthy and to prevent another spike in COVID-19 cases. Without a safe vaccine, our numbers of cases will continue to fluctuate, and we will continue to face substantial risk of infection.”

The Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board approved the study, led by Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

The Navajo Nation, one of the country’s largest tribes, has reported nearly 10,000 positive cases and 530 deaths related to the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to the Navajo Department of Health. Of the positive cases, 7,169 people have since recovered and 98,408 tests have been given, according to the health department.

Pfizer is a U.S. drug company, and BioNTech is a German firm. This summer, the Trump administration awarded a $1.9 billion contract for 100 million doses to be delivered by December, with the option of acquiring 500 million more doses, according to the New York Times.

The news organization also reported that Pfizer could know if the vaccine works as soon as October, and if approved, it would manufacture more than 1.3 billion doses worldwide by the end of next year.

(Related article: Vaccine won’t make COVID-19 fade away)

Nez and Navajo Department of Health Executive Director Dr. Jill Jim spoke with officials with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases regarding vaccine trials.

The institute’s director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, will join Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer in a virtual town hall on Sept. 21 to discuss the COVID-19 response efforts and trial vaccines.

Participants must be between ages 18 and 85, healthy or have stable underlying health conditions, and they cannot have tested positive for the coronavirus. Enrollment will begin in mid-September, and participants will receive two doses of approved vaccine and will be monitored over a two-year period, according to a news release. .

“With our participation in the vaccine trial, we can reduce disparities and increase representation to ensure the vaccine works safely among the Navajo population,” Lizer said in a statement. “We will directly contribute to vaccine use in tribal communities instead of being left in the dark.”

Navajo citizens interested in participating in study can contact a site manager at one of the three locations, Chinle, Arizona (928-674-5051), Shiprock, New Mexico (505-368-4030), and Gallup, New Mexico (505-722-6372). An email option is available at johnshopkinscaih@gmail.com.

The nation posted the information on Facebook Friday, and in more than 250 comments many simply asked “why do this,” while others said “no, thanks.”

Much of the Navajo Nation has been closed since March as the coronavirus swept through the vast reservation that extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

The Navajo Nation is on a 32-hour weekend lockdown starting Saturday at 9 p.m. until Monday at 5 a.m.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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