Racism or Remedy: African Distrust of Vaccine Testing

May 12, 2020

Jesutimilehin Akamo


This article seeks to examine vaccine testing in Africa from a historical approach. Having a cure or vaccine to coronavirus (COVID-19) is a top priority for governments and scientists, and a major stage to it is the testing stage. 2 French doctors, John-Paul Mira, Head of ICU at Cochin Hospital, and Dr. Camille Locht, Research Director at Inserm, suggested that Africa should be the testing ground during an interview.

Africans met this with outrage and denounced it as a racist comment. Footballers and the Director-General (DG) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) spoke against it. This piece does not intend to propagate fear. Rather, it offers a historical approach to understand the reactions of Africans.



Reconstructed Scenario is based on the following Key judgments:


KJ1. Using Africa for vaccine testing is not new. Africans are likely to respond to coronavirus vaccine testing in Africa based on past experiences with vaccine testing.


KJ2. It is almost certain that Africans are suspicious of vaccine testing, and are unlikely to support coronavirus vaccine test in Africa. This is highly likely because of racial discrimination and past experiences with vaccine testing.


KJ3. There is a realistic probability that more people will begin to speak out against vaccine testing in the future. This is because football celebrities spoke out and their fanbase is highly likely to support their views on vaccine testing.



Reconstructed Scenario


These are the words of the 2 French Doctors: “If I could be provocative, shouldn’t we do this study in Africa where there are no masks, treatment, or intensive care, a little bit like we did in certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes?” Mira asked Locht. He added, “We tried things on prostitutes because they are highly exposed and do not protect themselves.” Locht response was “You are right. We are thinking of a parallel study in Africa to use this same kind of approach with the BCG placebos,”. Here, he was referring to the tuberculosis vaccination that Inserm reports it protected children against respiratory infections.


African footballers and the DG WHO have these responses:


“It is totally inconceivable that we continue to accept this. Africa is not a laboratory. I strongly denounce these serious, racist, and contemptuous remarks! Helps us save lives in Africa and stop the spread of this virus which is destabilising the whole world, instead of considering us as guinea pigs. It is absurd…Do not take African people as human guinea pigs! It’s absolutely disgusting…African leaders have a responsibility to protect their populations from those horrendous conspiracies.” Said Retired Ivorian International Footballer, and Chelsea FC former striker, Didier Drogba


 “Welcome to the West”, he commented, “where white people believe themselves to be so superior that racism and stupidity have become commonplace.” – French-born Senegalese International, Demba Ba


‘You are just sh**t, Africa isn’t yours to play with’, “Sons of bitches” – Retired Cameroonian International and FC Barcelona’s former striker, Samuel Eto’o


“racist”,” Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine,” – DG, WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus


These comments show that such an act had been practised in the past and Africans continue to allow it. It also illustrates that racist classifications are why they keep attempting it.

Their responses led to an apology from Mira and Locht. Mira apologised on Friday, Apr 3, 2020, in a statement published by his employer, Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris, ‘I want to present all my apologies to those who were hurt, shocked and felt insulted by the remarks that I clumsily expressed on LCI this week,’. Locht’s employer announced to the media that Locht understood “the emotion aroused” by his comments and that “He apologizes for this.”



Sleeping Sickness (Trypanosomiasis)


Between the 1920s and 1950s, French colonial governments executed a medical campaign project. Its purpose was to manage tropical diseases in sub-Saharan Africa. Sleeping sickness, a disease spread by Tsetse fly, had the most attention. Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, and Gabon were the target areas. They forcefully examined millions and injected them with test medications. These medications were ineffective and had negative side effects like blindness, gangrene, and death.


Each campaign team comprised one French military doctor, several African nurses, two white corporals, and several African soldiers, and labourers who carried equipment. Doctors examined villagers who refused at gunpoint and administered the drug, Drugatoxyl. This drug rids the body of trypanosomes almost as equal to the dose harmful to the patient. It is called chemotherapeutic index. It was close to 1. Apart from causing blindness, it could kill the patient. During this campaign blood-born diseases were spread through the reuse of unsanitary needles.





They used Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for trials of Polio vaccine developed by Hillary Koprowski. This was part of the responses to the worldwide epidemic in the 1990s. They administered it to millions. Although the trial was a success, it remained questionable that Africa was a testing ground.





Forced Contraception and Sterilization


In the 1900s, Dr Eugen Fischer performed an experiment to sterilise Herero women in Namibia. It focused on mixed-race, attempting to discourage mixed-race marriages. Herero women were forcefully made to take the medication.


In the 1970s, Depo-Provera was forced on African women who worked on white-run commercial farms. Depo-Provera is an injection given every 3 months. It suppresses ovulation, keeping the ovaries from releasing eggs. It is a birth control medication. This drug was forced on African women to keep them from getting pregnant. It was clinically tested in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia.



Pfizer and Meningitis in Nigeria


Pfizer Inc. is an American multinational pharmaceutical corporation headquartered in New York City. It is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer developed a drug for meningitis which needed clinical trials. There was an outbreak in Kano in 1996 and Pfizer attempted to compare the new drug, Trovan, against the best treatment intravenous ceftriaxone. Lawsuits filed in 2001, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2011 & 2013 showed that apart from lack of consent, the drug had negative side effects.


Eleven children died because of the trials. Others suffered blindness, deafness and brain damage. Although, experts said that it is difficult to determine whether the drug caused it because these signs are common with the disease itself. Later, a panel of medical experts concluded that the clinical trial was illegal. Regardless, the drug is hepatotoxic; that is, Chemically induced liver damage.





Apart from WHO’s DG, no African government spoke against clinical trials despite the terrible experiences Africa suffered. Footballers, rather than politicians and policymakers, spoke against it. Rather than speaking against it, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s government opened the for a clinical test of COVID-19 vaccine. According to the head of the national biological institute, in DRC Jean-Jacques Muyembe, clinical trials will begin in July or August, and DRC is a candidate for the test. Reasons for the silence of African politicians is unclear.


History of the negative side effects of clinical trials affects how Africans accepts medicine in many rural areas in Africa. In Nigeria, for instance, direct contact with individuals and experts in public health prove that many Nigerians do not trust medicine. Apart from culture or lack of education, they believe that some use contaminated medical tools in the vaccination process. Others also mention using them as ‘lab rats.’. This is like many locations in Central Africa.


These experiences do not encourage the opening up of Africa to vaccine testing. Africans will remain suspicious of it. Racial discrimination against Africans also reduces the chances of Africans accepting vaccine testing in Africa.

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