The COVID-19 Vaccine & Racial Disparities in Healthcare: A Q&A with Dr. James Hildreth

Dec 26, 2020


Alto Pharmacy

In August, we announced that Dr. James Hildreth had joined our newly formed Advisory Board as one of its first two anchor members. Dr. Hildreth’s extensive healthcare expertise has been invaluable as we’ve sought to guide Alto into the future and continue reimagining the pharmacy experience. 

A Fascinating Chat with Dr. James Hildreth

Dr. Hildreth is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Meharry Medical College—one of the nation’s oldest and largest historically Black academic health sciences centers. He is internationally renowned for his decades of influential HIV research and is deeply entrenched in our current global health challenge as a member of the FDA’s COVID-19 Vaccine Review Committee.

We were honored to sit down with Dr. Hildreth to discuss the challenges and opportunities we are facing at this pivotal moment in history. In addition to recounting his inspiring personal story, he shared many profound insights about the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of American healthcare. 

Can you tell us about your background and professional journey?

I grew up in a small town in Arkansas. It was one of those towns where if the two traffic signals were synchronized, you could drive right through and not even notice it. My father passed away when I was eleven years old. Quite honestly, because we were poor and Black, my father received very little medical attention. That was what prompted me to become interested in medicine.

I had no role models to look to, so I went to the library and read books about medicine. At age thirteen, I read a series of books that ranked your chances of getting into various medical schools. One of the universities was head and shoulders above all the rest, so my life’s work became getting into Harvard University.

To make a long story short, I got scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Yale, Stanford, and many other places. But because my research had shown that Harvard was the place to go, that’s where I went. I got a job at the medical school, and the professor who ran the lab was also from Arkansas. He took me under his wing, and suddenly I wanted to be an immunologist. 

It was too late to change my major, but I was hooked. I applied for and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1978, becoming the first Rhodes scholar from Arkansas who was Black. I got my Ph.D. in Immunology then went to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. 

I planned to become a transplant surgeon until I met my very first patient. She was an African American woman with HIV who had just given birth to a baby who also tested positive. At the time, all we could do was watch them die, and that impacted me deeply enough to change my trajectory. I became an HIV researcher, and I have been studying HIV for the last thirty-eight years. 

I have been President of Meharry Medical College for five years. I feel that my life has come full circle because Meharry’s mission is to give opportunities to individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have them. 

Can you tell us more about Meharry’s mission?

Meharry was founded in 1876, but the story is that in 1826, a young, white teenage boy named Samuel Meharry was driving his salt wagon in the backwoods of Tennessee. His wagon got stuck in the mud, so he knocked on the door of a nearby cabin. An African American family greeted him, gave him a place to stay for the night, and helped him on his way. He promised them that if he ever had any resources, he would do something for Black people. 

Sure enough, fifty years later, he and his four brothers made a gift to a central Tennessee college to start a medical department for African Americans. That department evolved into Meharry Medical College.

To be leading an organization whose purpose is to give opportunities to people who look like me makes me feel that my life has come full circle. Meharry is one of four Black medical schools in the country, and without us, the face of medicine in this country would look very different. We are very proud of our mission and I’m so happy to be leading the organization at this time. 

Given that you’re on the FDA’s Vaccine Review Committee for COVID-19, what is your perspective on how we’ve handled the pandemic to date?

It’s hard to avoid acknowledging how politics have devastated our response to this pandemic. Viruses don’t respect borders, especially when you’re dealing with a pandemic virus. We should have had a nationwide response from the very beginning. Ideally, the whole country should have shut down for several weeks. That would have saved tens of thousands of lives.

What are your thoughts on how the pandemic might unfold going forward?

In my opinion, we’re entering a frightening period because we’re at the base of an exponential rise in cases. It’s essential to understand that for every case we diagnose, there are probably four, if not eight, cases that go undiagnosed. Many people don’t know they have the virus and are spreading it. 

Our country represents four percent of the global population but twenty percent of the people who are dying. That’s unimaginable to me. When you’re dealing with an airborne pathogen that can be transmitted so easily, it is unacceptable and unethical not to have stronger leadership and mandates in place. 

Can you share any insights on potential vaccines and vaccine distribution?

I’m on the FDA committee that will review the data from the drug companies and make recommendations about approval. In a couple of weeks, we will review the Pfizer vaccine. I can tell you that the data from both Moderna and Pfizer are very compelling. Both vaccines appear to be highly effective.

Neither of these vaccines is what we’d call a “sterilizing vaccine,” They will not prevent a person from getting infected, but they will limit the amount of disease that occurs after infection. The other exciting aspect of these vaccines is that they represent a new type: messenger RNA vaccines. Rather than using a protein for the vaccine, we’re using a message that encodes for the protein. There was some doubt if this new type of vaccine would work in humans, but it does. This development will facilitate future vaccines quite nicely. 

By the spring of next year, there will likely be two vaccines approved for use. The question is: who will get those first forty million doses that become available? Healthcare workers will probably get them first, then people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Many experts, myself included, are trying to make the case that those most vulnerable to disease and death should be next in line. The CDC has already worked with the states to develop distribution plans, but they are not in line with that thinking. There are going to be a lot of intense discussions in the coming weeks. 

What are the healthcare topics that get you most excited—or keep you up at night—right now?

The pandemic has revealed something that minority healthcare professionals have known for a long time: there is a wide gap in the health status of Americans. If you are African American or Latinx and live in certain communities, you are much more likely to have certain chronic conditions. This increased risk is related to your zip code, educational attainment, where you work, and what your job might be, but running through all of this is an underlying current of racism. 

We can’t solve the problem until this country has a necessary conversation about the role of racism in every domain of American life. I like the way that Martin Luther King put it. He said that when you have centuries of neglect, suppression, oppression, or denial, there is an interest that accumulates. The answers to these problems are going to be much more expensive and time-consuming than if we had been dealing with them all along. 

No matter what industry we’re in, all of us need to have tough conversations about what race really means. Take, for example, the sequencing of human genomes. African genomes are the ancestral genomes—all of us can link our humanism back to Africa. But of all the hundreds and thousands of genomes that have been sequenced, very few of them come from folks who look like me. 

It’s the same as my experience in medical school in the 1980s. We learned to treat the average, middle-aged white male because that’s who the studies were centered on. The exclusion of certain groups from clinical trials, programs, and conversations has created a wide gap that we now have to close. We need to have every healthcare institution at the table trying to work on it.

On a positive note, as the pandemic reveals these disparities, many organizations are awakening to the fact that there is work to be done. I’m encouraged by what happened after we witnessed the senseless murder of George Floyd. It was a really painful time for me because that could have been me, my son, or my brother. It could have been any one of us. But the response that we witnessed wasn’t just from African Americans and liberals. It seemed to me that people of all different backgrounds and races came together to say that this is unacceptable. It gave me some hope that we can change this and become a better nation.

What opportunities do you see for Alto in the world of healthcare?

I think Alto has a great opportunity to improve people’s quality of life who need to take medications to improve their health status. Before she passed, my mother would complain about how difficult it was to get her prescription medications. The ability to simplify and improve the process for everyone will positively impact a significant population of people. 

I was humbled that you asked me to be in your advisory group. I’m excited about what you’re doing, and I think it’s going to make a big difference for many people. 

Any final words to share with us?

As we approach the holidays, I’d like to share something I’ve told my students. The last thing you want to do is create a situation where this is the last holiday you’ll spend with some of your older relatives. Please be mindful that there is a lot of the virus out there, wherever you are in the United States. Please take steps to protect yourselves and your families. Have a wonderful holiday, but if you can, make it virtual.

Note: This interview was conducted in early December 2020.