Surgeon General Cites Horrific Tuskegee Experiment, Voices Vaccine Distribution Concerns

Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, United States Surgeon General, speaks
Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, United States Surgeon General, speaks during the Chiefs of Defense (CHODS) conference at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters, Hawaii, Aug. 24, 2020. (Anthony J. Rivera/U.S. Navy)

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams is warning that some American populations may be reluctant to take a COVID-19 vaccine because of the nation's dark history of racial discrimination.

On an Oct. 23 conference call, he cited the infamous Tuskegee Institute syphilis experiments from 1932-1972, in which hundreds of African-American sharecroppers with the disease were studied and deceptively given ineffective treatments instead of penicillin.

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Adams said he was already "alarmed about the growing health disparity this pandemic has revealed," with evidence mounting that infection, hospitalization and death rates are higher in "communities of color."

"I would consider it a great tragedy if we actually had a safe and effective vaccine to end this pandemic but discover that disparity actually worsens because the people who could most benefit either can't get it or won't take it," Adams said .

He voiced his concerns last Friday on a Department of Health & Human Services conference call that focused on the progress in vaccine development and a delivery system overseen by Army Gen. Gus Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed.

"The Tuskegee experiment is the standout example" of the historic mistrust that lingers in the Black community of government-run health care initiatives, said Adams, a vice admiral in the Public Health Service. "We know that lack of trust is the underlying cause for a lot of the reluctance, especially in communities of color."

"I feel," Adams added, "we have to acknowledge these valid concerns about a history of mistreatment and exploitation of minority groups by the medical community and the government ... We must make sure that tragedies like the Tuskegee study never happen again."

The government must strive for an "unprecedented level of transparency," he said, on approval methods for vaccines to ensure acceptance in minority communities.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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