As you read this article, biopharmaceutical companies around the world are working as fast as they can to safely develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The federal agency charged with determining which vaccines and treatments are safe and effective for widespread use is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA encourages companies running experimental drug studies, also known as clinical trials, to enlist people that reflect the intended population for their treatment. In the case of coronavirus, that means the trials should include older adults, people with certain chronic conditions, and African Americans, who all have a higher risk for complications from COVID-19.
As we age, our immune systems weaken, making it harder to fight off infectious diseases such as COVID-19. One of the most comprehensive estimates to date found that COVID-19 kills an estimated 13.4 percent of patients 80 and older, compared to 1.25 percent of those in their 50s and 0.3 percent of those in their 40s.
When advanced age is accompanied by heart disease, lung diseases, obesity, diabetes, or liver disease, the risk of serious illness and death from the virus goes up even further. Many of these conditions disproportionately impact African Americans.
Unfortunately, under-enrollment of older adults and people of color in clinical trials is an ongoing issue. Some studies impose arbitrary age limits or exclude those with multiple health problems. This results in doctors prescribing medications for older adults that have primarily been tested in healthy young people, who metabolize drugs much differently. Someone who is 80 years old may need a higher or lower dose of the same medication as a 20-year-old.
This is especially alarming in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, when anything less than exact won’t cut it. The Alliance for Aging Research encourages older adults to “pay it forward” by volunteering for clinical trials and advocates for researchers to prioritize recruitment of older adults and people of color in their studies.
To effectively combat COVID-19 in older adults and people of color, we need to know how they will respond to the potential vaccines and treatments in development. The only way to know that is to ensure they are included in clinical trials.