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The hectic rush scientists and researchers are taking to test potential treatments for COVID-19 in clinical trials has rekindled intense debate about the use of humans in critical pharmaceutical trials in Africa.
On April 1, French medical researchers Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht suggested on a live television show that trials of a potential vaccine should be done first in Africa, Al Jazeera reports. Dr. Mira, head of the intensive care unit at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, compared the current situation with “some AIDS studies, where prostitutes are tested because we know they are highly exposed and do not protect themselves.”
The researchers made those comments in the context of a discussion about trials in Europe and Australia to determine whether the BCG tuberculosis vaccine can be effective against the new coronavirus. In Australia, trials are being conducted on at least 4,000 healthcare workers.
The attitude of these researchers resonates in the long and grim history of medical experimentation and exploitation in Africa, where African leaders have colluded with pharmaceutical companies, often European or American, to carry out trials on the most vulnerable population in society. .
The researchers' comments immediately generated disapproval and outrage, expressed on the label. #AfricansAreNotGuineaPigs (Africans are not guinea pigs).
Ivory Coast soccer star Didier Drogba tweeted:
It is totally inconceivable we keep on cautioning this.
Africa isn’t a testing lab.
I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racists words.
Helps us save Africa with the current ongoing Covid 19 and flatten the curve. pic.twitter.com/41GIpXaIYv
– Didier Drogba (@didierdrogba) April 2, 2020
It is totally inconceivable that we continue to notice this.
Africa is not a testing laboratory.
I want to openly condemn those humiliating, false and above all racist words.
Help us save Africa from COVID-19 and flatten the curve.
On April 3, Dr. Mira had apologized for his comments, but only after resistance and pressure from the French anti-racism group SOS Racisme. However, Dr. Locht's employer dismissed the Twitter outrage as “false news” and argued that his comments had been taken out of context.
The same week, Congolese virologist Jean-Jacque Muyembe, who worked on the front line of the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, announced that the country “is ready to participate in the testing of any future coronavirus vaccines” News 24 reported.
Muyembe, head of the special pandemic corps and his country's national health institute, said at a press conference:
We've been chosen to conduct these tests… The vaccine will be produced in the United States, or in Canada, or in China. We're candidates for doing the testing here.
We have been chosen to carry out these tests … The vaccine will be produced in the United States or Canada or China. We are candidates for testing here.
Once again, the comments sparked fury from Congolese citizens and Internet users, who condemned Dr. Muyembe's willingness to be the subject of clinical trials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where COVID-19 infection rates remain relatively low.
In just hours, Dr. Muyembe clarified his statements in a video message, and confirmed that the vaccine would only be tested in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after trials in countries such as the United States and China are carried out:
Yesterday Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe announced that DRC was among Countries where Covid-19 vaccine wld be trialled.
He has now clarified saying ‘vaccine wld only be tried in the DRC after trials in Countries like US & China’ & that he wldnt allow Congolese ppl to be ‘Guinea pigs’ pic.twitter.com/EZ3TLoxs2A
– Samira Sawlani (@samirasawlani) April 3, 2020
Yesterday Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe announced that the Democratic Republic of the Congo was among the countries where the COVID-19 vaccine would be tested.
Now he has clarified and said that “spñp would be tested in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after trials in countries such as the United States and China” and that it would not allow the Congolese to be “guinea pigs”
The grim history of medical experimentation in Africa
Medical experimentation in Africa, often practiced under the guise of the “greater good” of finding the cure for deadly diseases such as meningitis and HIV / AIDS, has raised ethical and moral alarms for years, especially around informed consent and Forced medical procedures. These trials are often funded by major health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Institute of Health. .
In Zimbabwe, in the 1990s, more than 17,000 HIV-positive women were tested without their informed consent to test the antiretroviral drug AZT with funding from the three aforementioned institutions.
In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tested an experimental drug called Trovan on 200 minors in Kano, Nigeria, during an epidemic of bacterial meningitis. Many families filed and won a lawsuit against Pfizer for violation of informed consent.
Medical experimentation is not only intertwined with the history of racism and colonialism, it also sets a dangerous precedent as it undermines trust between citizens and health authorities.
“European colonialism and biomedicine extended and mutually strengthened their scope,” writes Patrick Malloy in an academic article entitled Research Material and Necromancy: Concept of the Political Economy of Biomedicine in Colonial Tanganyika.
From malaria to other “infectious” conditions, colonial authorities often subjected their African subjects to the non-consensual practice of specimen-specimen collection and “appropriated African blood to fuel colonial-era medical research,” he writes. Malloy. And continues:
In Tanganyika as well as other African colonies, this meant that colonial subjects could be called upon to surrender tissue samples, literally portions of themselves, to the medical authorities.
In Tanganyika, as in other African colonies, this meant that colonial subjects could be called upon to turn over tissue samples, literally parts of themselves, to medical authorities.
Such practices alternated with horrifying rumors in East Africa about “gangs” employed by Europeans who kidnapped Africans to draw blood from them to make a chewy medicine known as mumiani. The Swahili term evokes the image of the “vampire” or the “bled”, which has also become synonymous with “exploitation”.
This grim history has sown deep mistrust in vaccines, medical trials, and experiments in Africa, and continues to haunt decisions made by health authorities working in sync with government officials and global pharmaceutical companies.
The debacle of the 1990s with tests for meningitis in Kano, Nigeria, created such mistrust that it later made it difficult to promote polio trials. Rumors flourished around the polio vaccine. These rumors spread as news and over time translated into a regional regulation that banned the polio vaccine in Nigeria in 2003.
Get rid of the colonial 'vestiges'
What does all this mean for potential COVID-19 trials in Africa? Netizens and activists have emphatically expressed the view that “Africans are not guinea pigs.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has branded the attitude of the two French doctors as a “vestige” of a “colonial mentality” and stated:
Africa can't and won't be a testing ground for any vaccine.
Africa cannot and will not be a testing ground for any vaccine.
However, deep-seated fear and mistrust against medical experimentation has also complicated contact tracing and testing to contain the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus to healthcare workers.
On April 6 in Ivory Coast, protesters set fire to a COVID-19 testing center, claiming that its location in a populated place was inappropriate. The attack evoked “memory of attitudes during the Ebola outbreaks in West and Central Africa, when some people attacked health workers on suspicion that they were bringing the disease to their communities, rather than offering crucial medical care ”Reported the BBC.
However, in the last stage of the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, critical human trials administered to Ebola patients “within an ethical framework”, under the medical guidance of Dr. Muyembe and the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo finally saved lives. In November 2019, a vaccine had been approved after thousands of Congolese were tested for Ebola.
The WHO hoped to declare the Democratic Republic of the Congo an Ebola-free country by April 12, but after more than 50 days without a single case, a 26-year-old man contracted Ebola and died on April 10.
Now, in addition to Ebola and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the Democratic Republic of the Congo must turn its attention to mitigating the coronavirus outbreak.
There are currently 62 initiatives underway to find a vaccine for COVID-19. Responsible and ethical vaccine trials take time and attention. Will big pharmaceutical companies maintain the same ethical standards in Africa that they usually adhere to in trials conducted in western countries?