Many people are outraged by the two French scientists who suggested that Africa be the testing grounds for the Covid-19 vaccine. Although I am disgusted, I am not surprised.
What most people do not realize is that Africa and people of African descent have been the subjects of medical experimentation for centuries. I won’t take you back to the days of slavery, because people tend to think that those days are behind us.
Let’s take it back to a time when you, your parents or your grandparents may have been alive.
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Have you ever heard of Henrietta Lacks? In 1951, nearly 100 years after the abolition of slavery, she went to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland USA because she had cervical cancer. I am not going to get into her actual treatment or how she was misdiagnosed.
During her diagnosis and treatment her doctor, George Otto Gey, without her consent, cultured her cells and used them for medical research. He created the cell line commonly referred to as HeLa or the HeLa immortal cell line. This cell line was used to find the vaccine for polio, AIDs research, cancer research and after being put into mass production; it is still used for medical research to this day.
The entire world can agree that Henrietta Lacks was special and the research has saved millions of lives; her family has not been compensated in any way for her contribution even though pharmaceutical companies have made billions of dollars from the research they do with her cells. I recommend the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot if you want to learn more. This has also reinforced many people’s beliefs that they have the right to use people of colour for medical research.
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International Laws against such inhumane acts
If thinking international laws forbids this type of thing, you’re both right and wrong. First, it is true. Africans are still used as test subjects; so much so that two French scientists spoke about it on national television. They spoke about Africa as COVID-19 Vaccine testing centre like it was the most obvious solution to the current global pandemic.
When it comes to actual laws, this is where things get a little messy.
The Declaration of Helsinki (1964)
The Declaration of Helsinki was originally released in 1964. It was supposed to be a set of ethical principles for the international medical community and essentially the World Medical Association.
As human rights evolved around the world, the document became more specific. Although it is on its 7th revision, after the 3rd revision in 1989 the United States quit recognizing revisions.
In 2006, the US announced they would no longer refer to the Helsinki Declaration. The Americans can thank George W. Bush’s administration for that one. To their credit, they did come up with the “Good Clinical Practice” in 2008; but obviously, it has allowed for fewer restrictions.
Many European nations might still be a part of the Declaration of Helsinki, but they convince themselves that they are abiding by it by obtaining “consent”. Consent is a word that is often controversial and most often thought of simply as a term used for whether or not someone agrees.
Especially in impoverished places that are lacking access to advanced medicine, for decades people have blindly trusted the foreigners who come to “help”. Due to literacy and language barriers, they may not be aware they are participating in research or a trial. In fact, whatever they are being offered may be the only way they could get any form of treatment. This means they may not have been able to provide consent because they had no idea what was actually happening and, in some cases, the actual trial was conducted without them being informed in any capacity.
Henrietta Lacks et al
Usually, people use the story of Henrietta Lacks to justify treating people of color like lab rats. Here are a few others from more recent history.
-Kenya:, following a tetanus vaccine administered by the government. Although the women are still claiming to have fertility issues, WHO and UNICEF confirmed that the vaccines are safe and are procured from a pre-qualified manufacturer. Some people may call this a conspiracy theory, but other than defending the vaccine manufacturers what is being done to understand the increased rates of infertility?
Here are some more examples of documented cases from a study conducted in 2008. Source
-Uganda (1997-2003) “Nevirapine PMTCT trials In the HIVNET 012 trial, investigators failed to get patients’ consent about changes in the experiment and administered wrong doses.”
-Nigeria: (1996) “Trovafloxacin (Trovan) was tested on children without parents’ informed consent, patients were unaware of the experiment, and the trial was not approved in advance by an ethical review committee. Out of 190 children that were enrolled in the trial, five receiving trovafloxacin and six receiving the existing treatment ceftriaxone died. Others suffered brain damage and paralysis.”
-Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Cote d’Ivoire: (2003 – 2006) “In an experimental HIV/AIDs study sponsored by multiple large pharmaceutical companies, patients were split into 2 groups. One group received continuous anti-retroviral drugs. The others received them and then had their treatment stopped to see what would happen.”
-Cameroon, Thailand, Nigeria: (2004-2005) “Tenofovir trials on HIV transmission In Five Cameroonian women became HIV-infected while enrolled in the Tenofir-study. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) claim the 400 sex workers participating in the trial were not adequately informed about the risks and only English information was given to mostly French-speaking volunteers. There was a lack of ARVs for patients infected during the trial.”
Conclusion on the Africa for COVID-19 Vaccine testing matter
Currently, there are far fewer cases of Covid-19 in Africa than in the US or Europe. When I say I am not surprised the French scientists shamelessly recommend Africa, I have my reasons. The examples are just a handful of recorded instances where unethical trials have been conducted in Africa. There is very little global outrage about COVID-19 vaccine testing. Also, when people die or have complications in Africa, the locals do not have the resources to fight back.
Perhaps, the global devastation this pandemic has created, Africa will see the need to be more vigilant and protect ourselves from outside threats like Covid-19. We also need to unite to create stronger medical research capabilities. As a continent, we cannot rely on people who do not have our best interests at heart to save us. We must save ourselves.
COVID-19 Vaccine testing post By: Nii Ala Russell Adjei
Nii Ala Russell Adjei is an architect from Accra, Ghana whose work can already be seen on 3 continents. He is currently continuing his architecture studies in the highly competitive Tsinghua University program. The school is globally ranked among the top 10 best architecture schools in the world.
When he is not designing, in his free time he likes to write about the challenges facing his people.
You can find out more about him and his work on his website www.thirstyarchitects.com or on Facebook @ThirstyArchitects.