African American volunteers are needed to find a vaccine to stop the deadly spread of COVID-19.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are increasingly focused on ensuring enrollment in the trials is representative of the communities at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. Among those conducting vaccine trials is the national company Benchmark Research, which has sites in Los Angeles, Fort Worth, New Orleans and locally in Sacramento on Arden Way.

Benchmark started its trials of seven different investigative products, or drugs, in July.

“These are the seven trials that the federal government is backing because they believe they have the most promise,” CEO Mark Lacy told The Sacramento OBSERVER.

They are also conducting other coronavirus vaccines trials as well. Some of these trials have been halted in order to get more ethnic participants. Lacy, who is based in Texas, said participation is currently around 28.5 percent, with the target being 33 percent.

“We’re looking to be able to include that very important information population,” Lacy said.

“Minority communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 for so many different reasons — their diet, they are more of the essential workers. It’s also very important to always have a diverse population to demonstrate how members of different groups react to a vaccine and whether there are any adverse effects unique to certain populations.

“The most important thing as far as enrolling minorities, there are genetic differences. We want to make sure that if we’re looking for a vaccine that the genetic differences that might be in Blacks, Latinos, Asians, whoever it is, that we have enough people enrolled in the study so that we can tell whether or not it’s working in that group,” Lacy continued.

No one necessarily wants to be a “guinea pig,” but African Americans particularly have a distrust of the medical community and consenting to clinical trials, given history, notably the Tuskegee Study where Black men from 1930s-1970s thought they were being treated for ailments including syphilis, but were never given a cure, but instead were studied by researchers.

Lacy acknowledges problems of the past and the uphill battle those doing the work today have in making up for them. As part of its efforts to gain more Black participants, Lacy said Benchmark’s Executive Director of Business Development and Global Alliances, Van R. Jones, a Black pastor in North Carolina, reached out to fellow members of the clergy, asking them to encourage their parishioners to get involved.

‘He had a very poor showing and a majority of the reason is because people mention Tuskegee and various other things. It’s a very difficult sell because Blacks and other minorities have been mistreated in clinical trials for many, many, many years and while that doesn’t exist now, it’s something in the past, it’s something we have to overcome to make them feel comfortable, (to say) no, we’re not doing this against the Black community, this is for the Black community instead of being something where we’re using them as the ‘guinea pig.’ Everybody’s the guinea pig. Every Caucasian that’s enrolled is a guinea pig.”

Lacy says at Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the studies, things are beyond that point.

“They’ve already determined that the drug for the most part is safe, so now we’re trying to find out whether or not the vaccine actually works in the population and actually inoculates so that they can’t get the coronavirus again.”

There is monetary compensation for participation. Lacy said there are other benefits as well, particularly the access to valuable health information for those who are uninsured or underinsured.

“That’s a big deal for people who don’t have the money to go to the doctor,” he said.

Researchers are seeking individuals who haven’t had COVID-19 as well as those who have previously tested positive. Some are hesitant about the trials and the vaccine itself, concerned that they’ll be injected with the virus.

“That’s the number one question that I’ve been asked because everyone’s concerned about exactly that,” Lacy said.

“And the answer to that question is many years ago, for example when we found the cure for polio, the polio vaccine, that was a live virus, a live attenuated virus, that we were injecting into people, but nowadays, for at least about 25 years, for vaccine studies, you’re not injected with the virus. It’s a different molecule that you’re injected with in order for you to be able to have immunity from the condition. So no, they absolutely get zero percent of virus,” he added.

The vaccine, Lacy says, is literally a work in progress.

“It may not be the best, but it’s a start,” he shared.

To start, a vaccine will be around 50 percent effective. Continued study will develop a vaccine that will be around 75 percent. Good odds, according to Lacy.

“It’s more effective than 0 percent,” he said.

For more information on Benchmark’s COVID-19 vaccine trials, or to sign up, visit

See next week’s issue of The OBSERVER for the second part of Senior Staff Writer Genoa Barrow’s discussion with Mark Lacy about the race for a COVID-19 vaccine and how it has become politicized as well as her discussion with local Public Health Officer, Dr. Olivia Kasirye on the County’s preparedness for a vaccine rollout.

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer