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VA enlists Fauci to help recruit veterans for COVID-19 vaccine and treatment trials

The VA announced the recruitment drive in a regular bulletin emailed Wednesday to veterans.

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Administering a vaccine
Administering a vaccine
( Joshua J. Seybert / U.S. Air Force)
Updated: November 19, 2020 - 11:45pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The health research arm at the Department of Veterans Affairs is seeking to broaden its pool of COVID-19 clinical trial volunteers, and has enlisted health czar Dr. Anthony Fauci to help recruit veterans for trials nationwide.

The VA announced the recruitment drive in a regular bulletin emailed Wednesday to veterans.

"As part of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, VA is recruiting volunteers for COVID-19 clinical trials at select VA facilities across the country," read the Nov. 18 newsletter. The trials are to test vaccines and treatments.

Fauci, who runs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared at the start of an enlistment video that was linked to the announcement.

"We need volunteers to join the VA research studies to develop safe and effective both treatments and vaccines," Fauci said.

A number of clinical trials currently are underway at VA facilities. Two involve treating sick patients. A third involves a vaccine being developed under the auspices of Operation Warp Speed, the multi-agency government program to produce 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine by January 2021.

The VA's drive to recruit new participants is driven by a push to widen a too-narrow field of volunteers, a government official told Just the News. "We need a much more representative demographic," the official said, noting that the current group consists primarily of Caucasian males.

The recruitment drive comes during a time of increased concern about a resurgent coronavirus that has dominated international headlines through much of 2020.

"Now cases are rising throughout the country," Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday during the first press briefing in months from the White House coronavirus task force. "Positivity in the last 30 days has risen from an average of 5 percent to 10 percent."

Increasing evidence shows that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in July.

Hence, the push from the VA to expand the demographics of its trial participants.

"There aren't enough minority Americans enrolled in our vaccine and treatment trials," the U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Adm. Jerome Adams, said in the video plea that was attached to the Wednesday email bulletin.

Not all veterans received the email — but some nonetheless rejected the notion of joining the study.

"I have not been contacted, but no," said Army veteran Fred Waters, when asked if he would participate. Waters served in the mid-1970s. 

Waters and other veterans said they believe they were given experimental treatments while in the Army, and now do not want to be "guinea pigs."

The VA's video veterans, though, said they will participate because they want to help others.

"Two of my four children have tested positive for COVID-19, and I am doing this for my children," said Army veteran Michele Jones.

"Going through the COVID experience is not something that I would like other people to go through," said Marine Corps veteran John Gutierrez.

Vaccine participants would not deliberately be exposed to the COVID-19 virus, the VA said, but would be given either a vaccine or a placebo, to track how many from each group eventually contract the virus in their daily lives.

"So we'll compare the two groups to determine if fewer people in the vaccine group get sick than in the placebo group," the VA wrote in a statement. "This is how we'll know if the vaccine works."

Over the summer, the Food & Drug Administration's Commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, addressed concerns that vaccines overall were being rushed at the risk of safety.  

"We understand the concern that rapid progression through the usual phases of clinical development could be interpreted to mean that typical vaccine development steps are being skipped," Hahn wrote in a July 23 letter to an advocacy group that expressed concern. "Please know that FDA scientists will not 'cut corners' in order to approve a vaccine." 

In other efforts, the Department of Defense on Thursday announced that it awarded a $12.38 million contract to Siemens Healthineers, to increase production capacity for COVID-19 testing inside the United States. The contract would raise the production capacity from 8.25 million to 50 million tests per month by July 2021.