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Meet The Kansas City Doctor Who Wants Black And Latino Volunteers For A Coronavirus Vaccine Trial

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Dr. Barbara Pahud, research director of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Mercy, talks Thursday about the joint AstraZeneca vaccine trial efforts with the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Traditional clinical trials often include white patients predominantly, but a diverse pool of participants can help make new vaccines more effective across demographics.

It's good news that pharmaceutical company Pfizer has developed a highly-effective vaccine for the coronavirus. But, one of Kansas City's leading infectious disease experts, Dr. Barbara Pahud, says it may also keep some people from volunteering for other vaccine trials currently underway.

"It's hard for people who don't do this for a living to understand we still need to do the research," Pahud says. "Because if the only vaccine that comes out to the public is Pfizer, we're not going to have enough vaccine for everybody."

That's why Pahud, who researches diseases at Children's Mercy, is co-leading the local effort to develop AstraZeneca's vaccine. The trials are a partnership of Children's Mercy Hospital and the University of Kansas Medical Center and were delayed in September because a volunteer in the United Kingdom developed an adverse reaction.

But the trials are back on now, and Pahud is making a special effort to get more African Americans and Latinos involved.

"You need to be able to study these products in different populations, different age groups, in order to see how that product is going to work in them," Pahud says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, long-standing social inequities in the U.S. have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of infection, hospitalization and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans and Latinos are hospitalized at more than four times the rate of white people.

"So we know that they are a population we want to deploy the vaccine to as fast as possible," Pahud says. "It's going to be hard to do that if we don't have data showing how the vaccine works in them, so it's important to enroll the people that you want to bring this product out to."

Pahud's personal calling

Her mission is very much a personal one. Pahud grew up and trained as a doctor in Mexico and has worked to help underserved and underrepresented communities since she moved to the United States.

After living in Mexico City, New York City and San Francisco, a move to the Midwest seemed a little crazy, "but I loved the hospital so much in their mission, that I just felt like I could learn to live in a smaller place like Kansas City," she said. "And I just love being here now."

Pahud says an added bonus of the work to get marginalized people involved in clinical trials is the new and important partnerships it has brought about within the health care community.

"I think this, of course, is a very unfortunate year for all of us, but it has done wonders for research," Pahud says.

One example: Her team has connected with KC CARE Health Center to spread the word and get more underserved people signed up for the trials.

It's also an opportunity to get people with HIV involved in the trial, says KC CARE's chief medical officer, Dr. Craig Dietz.

"I would have never probably crossed paths with Dr. Pahud or Castro," the other co-lead on the project, says Dietz. "So hopefully one of the other positive things after this, is long-lasting partnerships."

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Matrix Mobile Health Clinic was parked outside Truman Medical Center-Lakewood in Lee's Summit this week conducting vaccine trials on target populations.

One more tool easing the search is a tour bus-sized mobile laboratory which lets clinical coordinators recreate the exacting conditions needed for vaccine research including refrigerators, centrifuges, nurses and research staff.

"The mobile unit is my dream come true," Pahud says.

Pahud estimates her team will continue looking for volunteers through December or January, and, with case numbers rising across the country, there's no break in sight for her.

"It has been very rough, I am not going to lie to you," she says. "This is really our calling — this is what we signed up to do — and so this is our time to make it happen."

More information about the ongoing clinical vaccine trials can be found at CoronavirusPreventionNetwork.org.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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