The Covid-19 pandemic has put into perspective how disparities in health care disproportionately affect Black Americans, who are twice as likely to die from the virus than white Americans. Now, one health care company is aiming to change that through a decade-long partnership with historically Black medical schools (HBMS) and universities.

Novartis is investing in talent and research with more than two dozen HBMSs and HBCUs, along with other organizations, to work towards health equity.

“It is very important for us to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table and a voice to be a part of the solution,” Marion Brooks, Vice President and US Country Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Novartis, told The Plug.

The company will be investing $20 million towards scholarships, mentorship, internships and faculty research grants at the partner schools, which span 14 states and include Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College and Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund will play a key role in helping administer these programs.

Novartis will also put $13.7 million towards funding three centers at Morehouse School of Medicine that will address clinical trial diversity, diagnostic data standards and the impact of environmental and climate factors on health.

The long-term partnership came together in a relatively short time. Brooks said talks began with Morehouse only four months ago, spurred by the lack of diversity in clinical trials.

“We started brainstorming on things that we could do to help address some of the historical disparities in health care as well as in education and that’s where this idea was born,” Brooks said.

For the next six months, the participating schools and organizations will be discussing the specifics of what the initiative will look like, but Brooks hopes it will fully launch in early 2022.

Creating Centers to Address Health Inequities

One of the main goals of this initiative is to create centers designated to address three areas of health inequity: clinical trials, data standards that inform diagnoses and policy and climate change. Novartis is putting more than $13 million towards this effort.

In clinical trials for two of the three FDA-authorized vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, Black Americans were about 10 percent of participants even though they make up about 12 percent of the population, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Johnson & Johnson, the third authorized vaccine, said 13 percent of its US trial participants were Black.

Representation at this level is rare. 

A 2018 ProPublica analysis found that in more than three-quarters of trials for cancer drugs approved since 2015, less than five percent of the participants were Black. Distrust in the medical system due to past unethical experiments like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study have played a factor in the lack of participation.

“Enrollment of minority participants in itself is an issue because that requires a lot of community engagement and education of participants,” Dr. Anil Shanker, Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation at Meharry Medical College, told The Plug. “People are not open to joining these types of clinical trials because of the historical problems that have been caused to minority populations.”

When Black people aren’t adequately represented in clinical trials, it denies them access to novel, potentially life-saving therapies, and produces incomplete data on how medicines may affect a portion of the population.

Novartis is hoping to address this by training a diverse group of clinical trial investigators who are culturally competent and can recruit more minority participants to trials.

Dr. Shanker said the 145-year-old, Nashville-based HBCU has been successful in recruiting minority participants for the clinical trials it has run in the past year. Meharry participated in the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trial and is currently running a pediatric trial for Moderna’s vaccine targeting children from six months to 11 years old. 

He said the trust and confidence Meharry has built with minorities through the pandemic came from awareness and education, in part through the school’s president, Dr. James Hildreth, demystifying the myths people have heard.

Another disparity laid bare by the pandemic was in the data standards that lead to an accurate diagnosis. 

One of the tools that has become ubiquitous in the past year to measure blood oxygen levels, the pulse oximeter, can give less accurate readings for people who have darker skin, according to a December study. The tool was developed in populations that were not racially diverse, yet doctors may rely on faulty standards to determine whether a patient is very sick or not. It is standards like this that Novartis hopes to address through its partnership with Morehouse School of Medicine. 

The company is also trying to tackle the health disparities caused by Black people’s increased exposure to the negative impacts of climate change like air pollution, excessive heat and poor water quality.

These environmental issues are not new though. Brooks said they want to partner with people who have already been doing work in this area — leaders within business, government and local advocates — to be involved with the climate center.

Developing the next generation of leaders

The paramount goal of this initiative is to provide educational and professional opportunities to students at the 26 partner schools. Novartis will put $20 million towards scholarships, mentorship, internships and faculty research grants.

“It’s a transformational partnership,” Harry Williams, President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told The Plug. “The partnership is designed to not only support HBCUs, but also have a big impact on the health of Black people in America.”

TMCF will administer the scholarships. Up to 360 STEM or business students over the next 10 years will receive $10,000 each year for three years. Brooks said the target date for the first scholarship cohort is fall 2022.

Novartis employees will also mentor up to 400 students over the next decade and students will be encouraged and supported to apply to the company’s paid internship program, creating an HBCU recruiting pipeline for Novartis.

The initiative is also creating opportunities for faculty. Up to 10 faculty members a year will each be given a $25,000 research grant to focus on actionable solutions for health equity.

Williams said the goal of these programs is to create more opportunities for HBCU students to enter health care and social equity-related fields.

Though the initiative is wide-ranging and aiming to tackle the effects of centuries of systemic racism, for Brooks it is a career highlight.

“This is one of the proudest moments of my entire career,” he said. “Of everything I’ve accomplished professionally, launching this program and being a part of this has been number one.”