Large Scale Human Vaccine Trials Could Start In July : Consider This from NPR It's been 96 days since the first person in America was reported to have died of COVID-19. And for the first time, the federal government will require states to keep track of who's getting sick and who's dying based on their age, sex, and race and ethnicity.

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Around the world, 10 vaccine candidates have begun human trials.

COVID-19 has killed nearly 110,000 people in America. And black Americans are dying at nearly two and half times the rate of white Americans. As NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith and Greg Rosalsky report on the economic reasons why.

Plus, WAMU reporter Jacob Fenston reports on 85-year-old Margaret Sullivan, who feels like she's been "living in a bubble" since the start of the pandemic.

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This episode was recorded and published as part of this podcast's former 'Coronavirus Daily' format.
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Phase III Vaccine Trials, Testing On Thousands, Could Start In July

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Phase III Vaccine Trials, Testing On Thousands, Could Start In July

Phase III Vaccine Trials, Testing On Thousands, Could Start In July

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

February 29 - that was the day the first person in the U.S. was reported dead from the virus, and that was 96 days ago. Just today, for the first time, the federal government said states have to keep track of who is getting sick and who is dying based on their age, their sex and their race and ethnicity.

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ROBERT REDFIELD: I personally want to apologize for the inadequacy of our response. It wasn't intentional.

MCEVERS: That's CDC Director Robert Redfield apologizing that these requirements were not put in place sooner in front of a congressional committee today. They were mandated, Congresswoman Barbara Lee pointed out, in the last aid package passed by Congress in April.

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BARBARA LEE: The CDC and the Trump administration did not complete the assignment at all.

MCEVERS: The CDC did not make the requirement official until now.

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REDFIELD: I apologize. And unfortunately, it was under my signature, so I take responsibility. But we are correcting it.

MCEVERS: Coming up, vaccine testing on thousands of people could be a month away. This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Thursday, June 4.

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MCEVERS: Around the world, there are 10 vaccine candidates that have started human trials. Those trials have three, sometimes four, phases. And here's how they go. Phase one - the vaccine is tested on a small group of volunteers.

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FRANCIS COLLINS: To see whether they, in fact, in a small number of volunteers, do produce a decent level of antibodies, which would tend to predict that they're going to work.

MCEVERS: Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health.

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COLLINS: And they have to also show in a small number of volunteers that they're safe.

MCEVERS: Some of the 10 candidates are past that first phase and into phase two, which expands the number of people tested - 600 people in one current trial.

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COLLINS: This is moving at an unprecedented speed, recognizing that we really only knew about this virus back in January.

MCEVERS: Phase three is where things get really big - like, 30,000 people, half of them receiving the vaccine and...

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COLLINS: Half of them receiving a placebo that looks and feels just like the same thing so that we could really begin to assess whether these work. And there are some of the vaccines that are ready to get started into that phase as early as the beginning of July. And that is a phenomenal thing to be able to say, considering these things usually take several years.

MCEVERS: Sometimes in a fourth phase, scientists keep studying the vaccine after it's approved and safe to use. And safe is the key word here. Collins says it is true the government's vaccine program, called Operation Warp Speed, is moving fast.

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COLLINS: But it is not a means of compromising safety. We will not do that. We're just skipping over some of the steps that tend to go slowly for regulatory reasons and for business reasons and trying to make those go faster. We are not compromising on safety.

MCEVERS: To speed things up, the government will pay to start manufacturing lots and lots of doses before a vaccine is cleared for use.

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COLLINS: So that if it does work, you don't then have to wait for many months. You wouldn't normally do that because some of this is going to go to waste. But when you consider what's happening here and the people's lives at risk, it seems like the right thing to do. That's part of the Warp Speed idea.

MCEVERS: And still, at first, there will not be enough doses for everybody. Collins said health care workers and people living in long-term care facilities - in other words, people at highest risk - will likely get it first.

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MCEVERS: COVID-19 has killed nearly 110,000 people in this country, and black Americans are dying at 2 1/2 times the rate of white Americans. Stacey Vanek Smith and Greg Rosalsky from The Indicator, NPR's daily economics podcast, say one big reason for that is jobs.

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STACEY VANEK SMITH: Valerie Wilson directs the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute.

VALERIE WILSON: People are having to decide between economic security and health security.

GREG ROSALSKY: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans are disproportionately likely to be doing so-called essential jobs in the food industry, working in health services, driving taxis. On the upside, that means these workers still have their jobs. On the downside, it means they have to keep working and potentially put their health at risk.

WILSON: Essentially, what you'll have to - quit your job in order to protect your health. And that puts you at greater risk of economic insecurity and not having the income, not having access to resources. So people are being forced to make very difficult decisions.

ROSALSKY: William Darity Jr. is an economist and a professor of public policy and African American studies at Duke University. He says many people have talked about how African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a higher rate because they're more likely than the rest of the population to have health conditions that put them at higher risk. Still, he says, that is an economic issue as well.

WILLIAM DARITY JR: Another more fundamental preexisting condition which drives many of these health differences is this enormous differential in access to wealth.

VANEK SMITH: Black Americans constitute about 13% of the U.S. population, but they hold less than 3% of the country's wealth. And that means many African Americans can't afford to stop working and also have a harder time weathering unemployment and an economic crisis.

DARITY: It's making glaringly visible a host of inequalities that existed prior to the onset of the crisis.

VANEK SMITH: William worries that the economic disparity between African Americans and the rest of the population is going to get worse. For one thing, employment - African Americans have a higher unemployment rate compared to the overall population, and African American job candidates are far less likely to get hired than white job candidates. So when there's a lot of competition for jobs, it can hit the African American community especially hard.

ROSALSKY: Also, William says, African American entrepreneurs are struggling right now. According to recent surveys, minority-owned businesses have been far less likely to get government aid from the giant CARES Act passed by Congress.

VANEK SMITH: Whereas, overall, about 38% of small-business owners who applied for government aid reported getting it, only 12% of black- and Latino-owned businesses reported getting the aid they asked for. William worries that once economies across the country start to open back up and businesses reopen their doors, many African American-owned businesses just won't make it through.

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MCEVERS: NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith and Greg Rosalsky.

Margaret Sullivan lives in a nursing home right outside Washington, D.C. She's 85. She lives there with her husband. And for weeks, she's been talking to Jacob Fenston, a reporter with NPR member station WAMU. They check in on the phone. Margaret records audio diaries of what it's like to live among some of the most vulnerable people out there right now. Here's Jacob.

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JACOB FENSTON: Margaret Sullivan lives in a retirement home high-rise just outside D.C. It's been on lockdown, as she calls it, since mid-March. No visitors and no one's supposed to leave.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: We are being extraordinarily well taken care of, but we are also being carefully harbored.

FENSTON: The first time we talked on the phone, she told me maybe she wasn't a good fit for my reporting project. After all, she had a comfortable life with her husband, nothing remarkable. A few minutes later, she told me this.

M SULLIVAN: My brother died about two weeks ago of the virus.

FENSTON: He was her younger brother, 72 and lived a few states away.

M SULLIVAN: I'm the oldest, and he's the youngest. It's outside the order of things.

FENSTON: For me, the pandemic has been about long days, juggling kids and work. But for Margaret, the virus brings with it thoughts of mortality. It was nearly time to get off the phone.

You said you had to go at 10:30.

M SULLIVAN: Well, I have to go in a few more minutes. We...

FENSTON: OK.

M SULLIVAN: This is another one. You need to be sure that the documents that the kids would need to have are in order. And so we're going downstairs to find the notary to sign the change of names in a will.

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M SULLIVAN: Good morning. How are you?

FENSTON: About a week later.

M SULLIVAN: I'm fine. How are the kids?

FENSTON: When we talk, Margaret genuinely seems to want to know about my kids.

M SULLIVAN: One of the things we miss here now is that other people's grandchildren are not coming in.

FENSTON: I asked Margaret to record her thoughts and experiences from inside the lockdown.

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M SULLIVAN: You came back to get your mask.

DAN SULLIVAN: Yeah.

FENSTON: In this recording, her husband Dan interrupts her looking for his mask.

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M SULLIVAN: OK, here it is.

FENSTON: Margaret is a writer. She's written books about her globetrotting life. Now she's documenting her life under lockdown, things like teaching Dan to wear a mask.

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M SULLIVAN: Dan, it needs to go over your nose.

FENSTON: Margaret and Dan have been married for 65 years. He's 91 and has mid-stage Alzheimer's. Margaret says, as the patterns of daily life change, his confusion increases.

M SULLIVAN: He's good about picking up and taking things to the sink. I may have to remind him that the sink is where the sink is.

FENSTON: Margaret jokes about the situation, and she keeps busy scheduling Zoom calls with her kids and grandkids. But as the weeks drag on, heaviness settles in.

M SULLIVAN: I find myself very seriously feeling hollow. It just sort of - there's a bog, and I'm caught in it.

FENSTON: There's the day, April 8, when she ends her recording this way.

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M SULLIVAN: Today's my brother's birthday, and he isn't here for me to call. And so my heart breaks a bit on that, too.

FENSTON: In late April, the retirement home where Margaret lives had its first coronavirus case. All the residents had to get tested.

M SULLIVAN: The swab goes up your nose. It doesn't hurt very much. But they did it for everybody. And everybody sort of held their breath a bit till you get the results.

FENSTON: Margaret says nine people tested positive. Two of them died. It made her very aware, she says, of the world of risk she lives in. Then last weekend, the Sunday New York Times came, the edition marking 100,000 deaths in the United States.

M SULLIVAN: And I just knew.

FENSTON: The front page - six columns of names in small print.

M SULLIVAN: We brought it in. And as we always do, there was coffee and the paper. And I knew he had to be there.

FENSTON: She found her brother's name halfway down the first column. Like each name, it was followed by a tiny obituary, a whole life condensed into four words.

M SULLIVAN: For Ted, they said that he could make anything grow. And he could.

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MCEVERS: Margaret Sullivan in Washington, D.C. And we should say, we just got word that Margaret is organizing a protest for George Floyd at the nursing home - eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence - next Tuesday.

M SULLIVAN: There were a good many residents here who were active in the civil rights demonstrations in the early '60s and at least one reporter who covered them. So we feel the need to continue the work.

MCEVERS: Margaret talked to Jacob Fenston with NPR member station WAMU. Also, in this episode, NIH Director Francis Collins talked to host Sarah McCammon on All Things Considered.

For more on the coronavirus, you can stay up to date with all the news on your local public radio station. If you own an Alexa device and want more coverage of the pandemic, ask it to play news from NPR. You'll hear a mix of the latest national and international news, as well as stories from your community. That's play news from NPR.

We'll be back with more tomorrow. I'm Kelly McEvers.

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