From a New York Times news article headlined "Trump Vows Vaccine by End of Year, and Mobilizes Military to Help":
"If there's only a small amount of vaccine, a million or 100,000 doses, there will be very difficult decisions about who gets the vaccine first," said Dan H. Barouch, the director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School who is also working with Johnson & Johnson on its coronavirus vaccine. "Is it high-risk people, different racial groups, different socioeconomic groups? Those discussions will be difficult."
The idea that "different racial groups" would get a Covid-19 vaccine first was a new one on me. I found it hard to imagine this idea. Would blacks, who have reportedly been hard-hit by the disease, get vaccinated first on the grounds that they are more vulnerable? Or could such an approach be part of a reparations scheme, a way of compensating for racism and slavery? Ta-Nehesi Coates, call your office.
Perhaps the fear is that without explicit racial preferences or race-based affirmative action in vaccine distribution, whites will have preferential access to the vaccine by default, consistent with what research has found to be their overall better access to preventative medical treatment.
It would be nice to see Vice President Biden pinned down on this issue in a future interview. "Mr. Vice President, do you favor a policy of deliberately giving members of some racial groups an earlier spot in line than others when it comes to administering a vaccine for the coronavirus?"
If policymakers do decide to go this route, it could open the door to creative self-definition. If you think the temptation to take an expansive view of who is a minority is large when applying for tenure-track law school jobs, imagine when applying for a life-saving medicine. When would Senator Elizabeth "Fauxcahantas" Warren get her vaccine, with the Native Americans or with the whites?
That's assuming or expecting that people want the vaccine first so they can resume a more normal pattern of activity—travel, being in crowds. I guess some people might be reluctant to go first for fear of unknown side effects. And, given the history, black Americans may be particularly reluctant to participate in anything that seems at all experimental.
When I see headlines about "who gets the vaccine first?" I tend to read them as being about whether some team of Chinese researchers or American or British researchers reaches the finish line first in the contest to discover a successful scientific formula, not who receives the doses of the vaccine first after they have been manufactured. Likewise, when I see headlines about "vaccine race" I think of it as that first-to-the-finish-line context for a preventative medicine, not about whether blacks, Asians and Pacific Islanders, or caucasians get the first dibs on doses of the vaccine.
I emailed Dr. Barouch to try to find out more about what he means and will update if I get a response.