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NIH director offers an intersection of science and religion at Massey’s Facts & Faith Fridays

Aug 09, 2021

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Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), spoke to a virtual audience of nearly 160 faith leaders and members of the Virginia Commonwealth University community on July 16.

As the featured guest of the weekly Facts & Faith Fridays call, Collins explained he had been an atheist but became a Christian during his medical school years.

“The ability to bring together the spiritual and the scientific world views has not been a conflict at all,” Collins said. “It’s been a joyful opportunity to really see all of the wonders of what’s around us and to try to answer some of the hardest questions. And science is good at some of them, and faith is good at some of the others.”

Collins recounted his reliance on both science and faith the past eighteen months as the novel coronavirus swept across the United States. The NIH launched vaccine development on January 10, 2020, the day Chinese scientists first posted the genetic sequence for the virus online. Within 36 hours, the NIH had a vaccine design. Within 63 days, a Phase 1 clinical trial volunteer received that vaccine.

Collins acknowledged COVID-19 vaccine development happened about ten times faster than any other vaccine in the past. He credited 25 years of research into how to use an mRNA approach to build a vaccine. That foundation allowed the NIH to bring the best science forward and move as rapidly as possible to find answers.

“While we’ve had lots of instances where science can be pretty intense, this time it’s like every day matters,” Collins said about the race for a vaccine in 2020. “Every day where we [do] not quite accomplish the goals that we might have, might mean something in terms of saving a life. So the whole scientific enterprise has been incredibly, tightly organized and energized as a result.”

In April 2020, the NIH, members of the private sector, academia and counterparts in Europe established criteria for the vaccine trials: they would be randomized, include 30,000 people, closely follow volunteers and take place in areas with active coronavirus transmission. The end point would be symptomatic disease proven by a test.

Collins said the greatest challenge initially was enrolling a diverse pool of participants; some of the earliest numbers reflected that under 10% were people of color. With more attention to the issue, and pressure from Collins himself, eventually 37% of people who received the vaccine during trials were members of racial and ethnic minorities.

“Diversity is not just a nice thing to have. It is essential for a trial like this and for most everything else we do,” Collins told the audience.

Especially because, as Collins stated, people of color shouldered an outsized proportion of the COVID pandemic burden.

“That is probably something that we should have seen coming since health disparities were well catalogued before COVID-19, but I don’t know that all the peoples of the world had really noticed that or all the scientists and researchers of the world had realized what the consequences would be of a pandemic and how it would strike particularly hard in African American and Latino and Native American communities.”

Collins noted that long-standing medical mistrust by some racial and ethnic groups contributed to the initial unwillingness to receive the vaccine. He applauded faith leaders, like those involved in Facts & Faith Fridays, for organizing vaccine clinics for their congregations.

Collins also acknowledged that historically the scientific world has not always been welcoming to people of color. He shared the NIH’s commitment to not just recruit and hire but also to retain a more diverse workforce, saying it will impact biomedical discoveries and reduce health disparities.

“It takes intention and it takes more than just saying it’s important. You got to really figure out how to make those things happen,” Collins pledged. “I think we’ve been slow to really take that on as seriously as we need to. We’re not going to be slow anymore.”

While the Food and Drug Administration has only given the COVID-19 vaccines emergency use authorization, Collins stressed the importance of individuals voluntarily receiving the vaccine. With the delta variant dramatically increasing its spread in the U.S. in only six weeks, Collins made an appeal to the 90 million Americans who have still not received even one dose.

“I’m hopeful that maybe… people are now seeing this as not over when they see that in June 10,000 people died of COVID-19 and 99.2% of them were unvaccinated,” Collins said. “If you needed any more evidence of how critical it is for you not to be in that statistical list for the coming months, there it is.”

Facts & Faith Fridays began in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The weekly call is a partnership between Robert Winn, M.D., director of Massey; Rudene Mercer Haynes, a partner with the Hunton Andrews Kurth law firm and Massey Advisory Board member; and F. Todd Gray, pastor of Fifth Street Baptist Church in Richmond.


Written by: Amy Lacey

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