Oveta Fuller found a way to address the spread of HIV/AIDS at the intersection of faith and science. She intends to do the same for COVID-19.

Fuller, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, created the Trusted Messenger Intervention.

The program enlists ministers and other faith leaders in Black churches in African countries and the United States to help dispel myths and moral judgments about HIV and reinforce that it’s a preventable virus.

Now, Fuller, who was on the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee that reviewed the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, has turned her attention to the ongoing pandemic and the low participation in minority communities in receiving the vaccine to fight the virus.

Black Americans, for example, were being vaccinated at half the rate of white Americans as of late January, a Kaiser Health News analysis found. Focus groups conducted by Kaiser found Black people distrust the health care system and fear systemic racism.

Fuller will bring her experience working with HIV/AIDS to a discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic and resistance to getting vaccinated in the next installment of the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series, hosted by Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

Fuller’s talk, “Navigating Pandemics: Trusted Messenger Perspectives on Coronavirus, COVID-19, and Vaccines,” will be presented virtually via Zoom at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 25. Attendees should register online in advance.

The series of free public lectures is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the value of bringing speakers to share their leading-edge biomedical and health science research to Roanoke.

“Dr. Fuller’s innovative approach and experience with HIV in multicultural community settings has positioned her perfectly to bring rich perspective and expertise to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Researchers can discover new innovations to prevent or treat disease, but our work must be understood, valued and accepted beyond the scientific community for it to be effective in delivering the intended benefits to all of our fellow citizens. Dr. Fuller’s keen understanding of the relevant science and how to be an effective messenger and honest broker for science benefits all society. Without the good work of leaders like her, the science just stays in the lab.”

Fuller began her work with HIV in the 1990s, and by 2000 realized that Black churches were a potential resource to break down social stigmas and increase testing for the virus.

In 2006, she piloted the Trusted Messenger Intervention to provide religious leader networks with biomedical, science-focused education about HIV and AIDS. The program showed immediate success in Zambia, where testing participation in a study group increased from 15 to 70 percent within a year of its implementation.

More recently, her effort has applied the same approach to the Ebola outbreak in Africa.

“I love the research I do in the laboratory, but when you see people’s lives affected, it’s a whole other level of sense of doing what you’re supposed to do,” Fuller said in a University of Michigan School of Medicine interview after launching Trusted Messenger.

Oveta Fuller
Oveta Fuller, left, has worked with leaders of Black congregations in Africa and the U.S. to deliver science-based HIV/AIDS education. (Pre COVID-19 archival photo courtesy of University of Michigan)

Fuller, a North Carolina native, is a former director and associate director of the African Studies Center in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan, the science advisor to the global AME Church, an adjunct faculty member at Payne Theological Seminary, and former pastor of Bethel AME Church in Adrian, Mich. She earned her doctoral degree in microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She was a 2012 William Fulbright Faculty Scholar and is a Ford Foundation fellow. She is a member of the American Society of Microbiology, the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, and the International Society of Infectious Diseases.

To watch Fuller’s virtual lecture and submit questions, register online via the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website to receive access to the Zoom link or watch a live webcast.

Written by Matt Chittum