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How biotech is marking Black History Month in 2021

J.P. Carroll
J.P. Carroll
February 12, 2021

Less than a month ago, the United States inaugurated the first-ever Black woman and South Asian woman to the vice presidency, Kamala Harris.

This historic moment of progress occurred against the backdrop of a shameful attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which included the active participation of white supremacists. Both events took place less than a year after the Black Lives Matter movement demanded—through peaceful protests—recognition that more needs to be done to advance equity and inclusion.

The past year has been one of seismic political, social, and technological change. With that in mind, BIO has been working to promote racial equity and inclusion—but much work remains to be done to ensure that “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are not mere slogans but guiding principles that drive innovation through increased representation of historically marginalized communities.

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) is celebrating Black History Month by recognizing Black scientists and innovators—and also by acknowledging the biotechnology sector’s place within the context of Black history so we can understand our past and where we need to go.

From Tuskegee to COVID: A centuries-old problem

Over the course of 2020, Americans developed increased awareness about the scale of work necessary in the fight for equity and inclusion. At the same time the Black Lives Matter movement inspired much of the country (including corporate America) to work towards these goals, COVID-19 has been killing Black and Hispanic people at much higher rates. And it’s more than just COVID-19: Black Americans face a greater risk of dying from cancer than white Americans, too, as just one more example.

But we know these inequities did not begin in 2020—and we can’t tackle this issue without first discussing Tuskegee.

Between 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute ran a study titled, “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” This research was conducted without the participants’ informed consent, and participants with syphilis did not receive available treatments. While the study was meant to last six months, it ultimately lasted 40 years—and an independent advisory panel “found nothing to show that subjects were ever given the choice of quitting the study, even when this new, highly effective treatment [penicillin] became widely used,” as the CDC explains.

Now, as COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out across the United States, we are seeing the legacy of Tuskegee in mistrust of vaccines by communities of color. Only 62% of Black adults plan on “probably” or “definitely” getting the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, while 35% “probably will not” or “definitely will not” get vaccinated. Of those Black adults who probably will not or definitely will not get a COVID-19 vaccine, 47% have stated that it is “because they don’t trust vaccines in general.”

It must also be noted that unfortunately only 5 percent of COVID-19 vaccines have gone to Black Americans. This reporting on vaccine distribution comes after the recent admission by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky that the U.S. federal government currently does not know how many doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are available.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing vaccine distribution efforts have highlighted the need not only to address longstanding inequities in access to healthcare but also the need to directly confront historic mistrust in the biotechnology sector. One notable instance of this sort of direct confrontation was when COVID Task Force Clinical Director Dr. Jayne Morgan, M.D., posted on LinkedIn a picture of herself receiving the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while holding up a sign that reads, “REBUILDING THE TRUST THAT TUSKEGEE DESTROYED”. This creative leveraging of social media to reach a wider, non-medical audience is exactly the sort of initiative that is needed right now.

The current landscape

Even prior to 2020, BIO has been working to ensure that representation is prioritized by member firms.

In 2017, BIO launched its board-level Workforce Development, Diversity, & Inclusion (WDDI) Committee with 19 senior biotechnology executives from BIO member firms to promote diversity and inclusion both at BIO and across the industry.

In April 2019, BIO announced the creation of the “Right Mix Matters” campaign to increase diversity on the boards of biotechnology companies. BIO created the BIO Boardlist with several diverse individuals able and willing to serve on the boards of biotechnology firms. Additionally, BIO published the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Toolkit so that firms can more easily create programs to promote a more diverse workforce.

In January 2020, BIO published “Measuring Diversity in the Biotech Industry: Building an Inclusive Workforce,” a survey of nearly 100 BIO member companies on what they are doing to effectively prioritize and promote diversity and inclusion. While solid work is being done, people of color are vastly underrepresented in the industry, comprising just 32% of staff members, 15% of executives, 14% of board members, and 12% of CEOs.

A commitment to diversity is established through leading by example

Ultimately, the culture of any organization is set at the top. BIO is leading by example with the appointment in May 2020 of Michelle McMurry-Heath MD, PhD as President and CEO. She has brought a wealth of global experience as a physician-scientist who has specialized in immunology and held senior positions at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in the private sector. In addition, she was the first African American graduate of the Duke Medical Scientist Training Program.

Dr. McMurry-Heath’s leadership at BIO could not come at a more important moment.

“I took the helm of this organization during a turbulent time. A pandemic was racing unchecked around the globe and the murder of George Floyd was bringing world-wide attention to the injustices suffered by minority communities,” said Dr. McMurry-Heath in August 2020 when announcing launch of the BIOEquality Agenda, an initiative to promote health equity, invest in minority scientists and expand opportunities in the industry for women and underrepresented populations. The BIOEquality Agenda aims to ensure that the future of the biotechnology sector is representative of those that it serves across all communities.

“Our industry had to seize this moment to help make a difference,” Dr. McMurry-Heath declared upon the launch of the initiative.

During Black History Month, and all year long, BIO remains committed to helping member companies be more representative of the diversity of the United States—and the patients we serve. By acknowledging the industry’s past and the work to be done, we can ensure a more diverse and inclusive future.