The FDA advisory committee that recommended the Pfizer vaccine largely agreed it was safe and effective. Seventeen members voted for it and four voted against it.
One of those No votes came from Dr. A. Oveta Fuller, a virologist and viral pathogen researcher at the University of Michigan. Dr. Fuller said she was concerned about the vaccine’s long-term impact.
“Because we are in a COVID pandemic and because so many lives are affected and because the public needs to understand so they know what to do,” Dr. Fuller said. “I felt like this is a lot. A heavy responsibility. It is very sobering and that’s how I take it.”
Fuller has an intrinsic understanding of the power of the word “No.”
“That is not uncommon that, African Americans and people of color are not encouraged to reach to the highest levels especially in those days. So, most of my life -- If you tell me not to do something or tell me I can’t do something, that’s just the incentive to say, ‘Well, gee whiz, my mom and dad told me I could do anything I put my mind to,” she said.
The not-so-subtle signals of racism continued once she got to the campus of the University of North Carolina.
“I was getting all settled and my roommate came down with her mother, assigned roommate, and then she went back, and she never came back. It turned out that it was a white person and she and her mother saw me and requested another roommate and I said, ‘Oh, well, okay, that’s up to them,’” she said.
Fuller trekked through places where she was either the first, or not immediately welcome. She made sure she would not be the last to dare to go to those places.
“I was aware that there were not that many people of color, not very many African Americans and I remember thinking surely this is so fascinating. I’m not the only one that wants to do it. And so, with some help of others we founded a chapter of the National Technical Association, which is a stem across the organization of African Americans. And we found that there were so many people with PhDs in who are working in industry around the Research Triangle in pharmaceutical sciences in microbiology and chemistry and other sciences,” she said.
Her love of things that could only be seen under a microscope has contributed to changing the world.
“I ran my own research laboratory as an independent investigator on herpes simplex virus, which is what I studied in the University of Chicago, and we studied how viruses attached to cells and go in to get across the membrane which they have to do an interesting that’s what the spike protein of COVID does it allows the virus to attach and get across, get into the cell so we can dump its genetic material in,” she said.
Fuller has worked in African on the HIV virus. Her faith, as the Reverend Doctor Oveta Fuller, an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, has led her to work with Trusted Messenger to bring religious leaders in sync with science.
“I’ve seen stats that say that some people want to say that people of color, African Americans are have the highest vaccine hesitancy and the truth is that that’s not the case it’s actually among white Republicans,” she said.
This brings us back to her yes vote for the emergency use authorization for the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines and the no vote to Pfizer. It had nothing to do with lack of proven safety and efficacy and everything to do with putting the FDA on notice for its processes seeking EUAs.
“I believe that that no vote helped to make sure there was more transparency, and to have people really think about this and now I want people to say, yes, we need to get on board for the whole world because we don’t get rid of COVID or get it managed everywhere in nowhere are we safe,” she said. “We don’t want people to get sick. We don’t want people to die. And these vaccines do the job.”