When Aisha Langford, PhD, MPH, wrote her doctoral dissertation on improving minority participation in clinical trials some years ago at the University of Michigan, she had little inkling that one day she would not only enroll in a trial herself, but it would also be a study of historic importance. When a friend contracted COVID-19 during New York City’s spring 2020 surge, she was compelled to put her research into practice. “I wanted to help people avoid COVID-19,” she says.
An assistant professor of population health, Dr. Langford researches how enhancing health communication can improve individual decision-making and reduce health disparities. Her efforts aim to boost recruitment and retention for clinical trials. She also advises NYU Langone’s Vaccine Center on strategies for improving community outreach and diversity. In June 2020, Dr. Langford enrolled in Pfizer’s phase 1 vaccine clinical trial at NYU Langone Health. She received her first shot on July 1, 2020, becoming one of the first people to receive the experimental vaccine. Here, she shares her insights.
Was there a particular moment when you decided to enroll in NYU Langone’s clinical trial for an experimental COVID-19 vaccine?
In early May of 2020, my pastor from back in Michigan saw on the news that NYU Langone was launching a vaccine trial for COVID-19 and texted me to see if I knew about the trial. I was not aware of the trial but learned more about it on NYU Langone’s Clinical Research Studies website. Before that, a good friend got very sick from COVID-19. He lives alone and had to call an ambulance because he was struggling to breathe. He was hospitalized for four days and still has some health challenges. I can’t imagine being by yourself when you’re that sick. I felt very blessed that I hadn’t gotten COVID-19, but I started thinking, “If there’s going to be a vaccine, I want to be one of the first to get it.”
Did you have any fear or reservations about taking an experimental vaccine?
I was 1 of 48 participants at NYU Langone’s site for the Pfizer phase 1 vaccine clinical trial, and we were literally among the first humans to get this vaccine. The consent form was 20 pages long. So, yes, I was a little bit concerned, but I’m familiar with science and believe in getting vaccines as a way to protect health. So I was more focused on the potential benefits. I was also curious about the clinical trial process and what the participant experience would entail. I thought, “Why not have some potential personal benefit while also contributing to the global effort to find a vaccine for this devastating disease?” It was a privilege to participate.
Did your family and friends express concern?
I got different reactions after I officially enrolled in the trial. My mom said, “That makes sense. You’ve been talking about clinical trial participation for years.” My brother said, “Why are you doing this? Are you crazy?” My significant other said, “Gosh, we should have talked about this. What if you get hurt?” My dad said, “That’s really brave. We’re proud of you.” I understand all of their views. They care about me, so volunteering for a clinical trial for something totally new sounded scary to some of them.
How did you feel after being vaccinated?
After my second vaccine shot on July 22, 2020, I had a low fever and was tired for a couple of days. Partly because of that reaction, I sensed that I had received the active vaccine rather than a placebo. Those mild side effects actually made me feel excited because my immune system was responding. When NYU Langone began offering its employees the vaccines that were FDA-approved for emergency use authorization, I inquired with the clinical trial study team about whether I had received the active vaccine, and learned that I had. Of the three groups in the trial, my group received a slightly smaller dose than the one later approved by the FDA for emergency use authorization. So I chose to get an optional booster shot through the clinical trial, which I received on March 17, 2021. I’m being followed for two years to monitor the efficacy and durability of the vaccine. My participation will end in July 2022.
You’ve said that it’s only natural for people to be “on the fence” about the COVID-19 vaccine? Why is that?
It’s understandable for people to be cautious. Although the vaccines were based on good science and collaboration, I don’t think health professionals communicated that very clearly early on. Historically, medical innovation has been slow. So people didn’t understand how we got the vaccines so fast when we still don’t have cures or vaccines for other conditions. But hesitation can be a good thing. It means people need more information and want to have their questions answered. From there, they can make informed decisions about getting vaccinated.
What’s the best way to approach someone who is vaccine hesitant?
Ask questions to find out why they’re hesitant. Some people have an underlying medical condition and want to know if the vaccines were tested in people with that same condition. Others don’t get recommended vaccines like the flu shot because they don’t think getting the illness is a big deal. Other people think they’re going to get a big bill, especially if they don’t have health insurance. It’s important to provide the information and support people’s need to feel more confident about getting vaccinated. For health professionals, it’s critical to listen and acknowledge concerns.
Vaccine hesitancy has historically been higher in the Black community compared with other groups. Have recent advocacy efforts made an impact?
The media have focused on Blacks and Hispanics, but vaccine confidence and willingness to get vaccinated is actually improving in every group. Black adults account for the biggest increase in those willing to get the COVID-19 vaccines. This success is due in part to intense efforts by many Black churches, community-based organizations, and medical professionals to build vaccine confidence. We need to keep providing opportunities for people to ask questions, find trusted sources of information, and access high-quality healthcare. To come out on the other side of this pandemic, it will be important for everyone to consider getting vaccinated. Vaccines are one of the greatest tools we have to minimize the burden of preventable diseases.