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A Department of Veterans Affairs doctor speaks with a patient in this undated file photo.

A Department of Veterans Affairs doctor speaks with a patient in this undated file photo. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals nationwide will soon begin clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine, and they’re looking for minority veterans to participate.

Several VA hospitals announced this week they were selected to run trials for a vaccine developed by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, part of Johnson & Johnson. In total, 20 VA locations are recruiting volunteers for investigatory vaccine trials, and 17 of them are part of the Johnson & Johnson trial, according to the VA website.

For the Johnson & Johnson trials, the VA is looking for both civilians and veterans to volunteer. They’re seeking frontline health care staff, essential workers and people who are Black, Hispanic and Native American – with a focus on minority veterans.

“The reason we’re asking minority veterans to enroll is because the COVID-19 pandemic has affected members of these communities at much higher rates than the rest of the population,” the department said in a statement. “The more participants from these communities in the study, the better researchers will understand if the investigational vaccine is truly safe and effective for the people who need it most.”

The VA is participating in the trials through Operation Warp Speed – a public-private partnership that aims to accelerate the development of a vaccine and deliver 300 million doses by January 2021. In addition to the 17 sites running the Johnson & Johnson trials, three other VA locations will be testing Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.

Johnson & Johnson paused trails for its vaccine in mid-October because of potential safety concerns after one of its volunteers became ill. The Washington Post reported at the time that a man who received a vaccination through the trial suffered a stroke.

The drug-maker announced Oct. 23 that it would restart the trials after investigators determined the stroke didn’t appear to be caused by the vaccine. The investigation found “no clear cause” for the incident and “no evidence” that the vaccine triggered it, according to a statement from the company.

“Unexpected adverse events, including illnesses, can occur in study participants during any clinical study, especially large studies,” the statement read.

The board overseeing the trial recommended restarting recruitment for Phase 3 trials. The VA hospitals participating in the trials are in Chicago, Baltimore, The Bronx, N.Y., and Durham, N.C., among other locations.

The vaccine is one of 11 investigatory vaccines currently in Phase 3 trials. It’s the only vaccine that takes a single shot; other prospective vaccines require multiple doses.

The VA is encouraging anyone who wants to participate in the trials to add themselves to the volunteer list at Volunteers will be contacted if they appear to meet the eligibility criteria.

The coronavirus continues to affect Americans in record-breaking numbers. The U.S. reported more than 121,000 infections Thursday, an all-time high. According to data from Johnson Hopkins University, the nation reported 1,210 deaths Thursday – the third day in a row deaths were over 1,000.

The VA is also seeing a record-breaking number of active cases. As of Friday, 7,151 VA patients were sick with the virus – hundreds more patients than during a second surge of the virus in mid-July. Deaths were also climbing more quickly. The VA reported 30 more deaths from Thursday to Friday morning, bringing the total to 4,128 among VA patients nationwide. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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