Why Africans should take part in vaccine trials

A generic photo of a masked nurse holding a vaccine

There have been countless horror stories about trials of a coronavirus vaccine being performed on people in Africa.

However, scientists say it is vital that Africans participate in these tests, arguing that it could undermine efforts to find a vaccine that works worldwide – and not just for the wealthiest countries.

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In March, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced a global "solidarity test", looking to find promising treatments for Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Since there are no known cures yet, an effective vaccine would play a critical role in preventing and controlling the pandemic, says the WHO.

This would train people's immune systems to fight the virus, preventing them from getting sick.

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How vaccines work:

  • They help to develop immunity by mimicking infections

  • This helps the body's defenses to recognize them and learn to fight them

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  • If the body is really exposed, it already knows what to do

  • A vaccine would normally take years, if not decades, to develop

  • A Covid-19 vaccine would make it possible to lift the blocks more safely and relax social distance

Read: How close are we to finding a Covid-19 vaccine?

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So far, a vaccine trial has started in South Africa – and one is awaiting approval in Kenya.

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However, the issue has been plagued by controversy.

And while vocal opposition to vaccines of any kind is not new, the current debate in Africa is centered on a race.

& # 39; Colonial mentality & # 39;

It was triggered by two French doctors discussing a trial in Europe and Australia, investigating whether a tuberculosis vaccine would be effective against the coronavirus.

During the debate on TV, both agreed that it should be tested in Africa too, one of them said: "If I can be provocative, shouldn't we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, treatments or resuscitation?

The tone of the comments caused a reaction.

"It was a terrible shame to hear during the 21st century, to hear that kind of comment from scientists," said Dr. Tedros, an Ethiopian.

"We condemn this in the strongest possible way and guarantee that it will not happen. The hangover of a colonial mentality needs to stop."

"Don't take the African people as a human guinea pig! It's absolutely disgusting" ", Source: Didier Drogba, Source description: ex-Ivorian football player, Image: Didier Drogba in 2018

Surprisingly prominent African personalities added their voice to outrage, including former football players Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto & # 39; o both victims of racial abuse on and off the field during their careers in Europe.

"Don't take the African people as a human guinea pig! It's absolutely disgusting," tweeted Drogba.

This anger is well-founded, as it has been documented that racism and economic discrimination exist in the area of ​​health.

There is evidence that pharmaceutical companies have tested in parts of Africa, with little regard for ethics or even simple respect for human life.

Compensation payment

An infamous drug test was carried out by Pfizer in northern Nigeria's Kano state in 1996.

Dozens of children were disabled after the Pfizer trial in Kano
Dozens of children were disabled after the Pfizer trial in Kano

A long legal battle ensued leading to the pharmaceutical giant pay damages to some parents whose children participated in the trial during an outbreak of meningitis.

Eleven children died and dozens were disabled after receiving an experimental antibiotic.

It raised serious questions about consent and whether any were obtained from parents.

More than two decades later, scientists like Ugandan researcher Catherine Kyobutungi say that things have changed and the process is more rigorous and transparent.

"There are safeguards at the individual level," Dr. Kyobutungi, head of the African Center for Research and Population (APHRC), told the BBC.

"We have different circumstances, different genetic makeup that can affect the functioning of the vaccine" ", Source: Catherine Kyobutungi, Source description: APHRC Executive Director, Image: Catherine Kyobutungi

"If you're a scientist involved in vaccine development, you don't want it to be the one that, in a few years, [is] Killing people.

"So people have a reputation at stake, they've invested many of their careers."

She says that now there are also safeguards at the institutional and national levels – countries have regulatory bodies, such as the Ugandan National Science and Technology Council (UNCST).

"You cannot carry out vaccine tests without approvals to verify that all safety procedures are being followed."

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Richard Mihigo, who oversees the development of vaccines and vaccines for WHO in Africa, agrees.

"Within the system, there are safeguards as well as incentives that make Africans unlikely to be exposed to harmful products."

Those conducting the research cannot be involved in the marketing and production of any subsequent medication or vaccine, he explains.

& # 39; Infodemic & # 39;

Such assurances are often deafened by a string of fake news on social media with theories about a plan to deliver harmful vaccines to black people with the aim of killing them.

For example, a false story about the death of seven children in Senegal after receiving an alleged vaccine against Covid-19 caused an uproar on Facebook.

It started circulating in early April, around the same time as the controversial comments from French doctors – which gave the false story even more power.

The WHO called the circulation of false information "infodemic" and deserves serious attention.

Decades of underfunding

But what has not received much attention over the years is health systems in Africa.

This despite the pledge in 2001 by African heads of state donate at least 15% of your annual budget to improve your health sectors.

The Pasteur Institute in Senegal is researching the coronavirus
The Pasteur Institute in Senegal is researching the coronavirus

So far, the goal has been achieved in only five of the continent's 54 countries – which has repercussions for scientific research.

Africa has extensive experience, but its scientists often work elsewhere because of this lack of investment – which means that research on the African dynamics of health issues is generally not addressed.

Those who remain find it difficult to organize partnerships, as sponsors choose countries with a reliable health infrastructure, which means that most trials are conducted in Egypt and South Africa.

Image of the banner reading & # 39; more about coronavirus & # 39;
Image of the banner reading & # 39; more about coronavirus & # 39;
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Many licensed drugs also come out of clinical trials conducted in wealthier countries, North America and Europe, which means that their suitability for use in Africa has not been verified.

Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East are also rarely involved in trials – although the numbers have increased marginally in the past two decades.

Africa is in danger of being locked up

Experts agree that in order to deal with this pandemic, any Covid-19 vaccine must work globally.

They say that if the continent distances itself from trials, its legacy of exclusion will continue.

"It is not acceptable for the vaccine to be tested in the UK, for example, and then brought to Africa because we have different circumstances, different genetic makeup that can affect the functioning of the vaccine," says Kyobutungi.

"We may have different strains; we also have other disease profiles. For example, we have a large population of people with HIV."

"No one should be pushed to the bottom of the vaccine line because of where they live or what they earn" ", Source: Cyril Ramaphosa, Source description: President of South Africa, Image: Cyril Ramaphosa

But his biggest concern is that Africa will be excluded, whatever happens, because the continent already has problems when it comes to testing for coronavirus, because "the countries have retreated inward, they are accumulating supplies".

"So the biggest danger that Africa faces is that the vaccine is out there, and rich countries buy all of that and there is no more left for Africans," she says.

With tests underway around the world, world leaders and experts wrote an open letter asking for a "popular vaccine".

Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa and current president of the African Union, is quoted in the letter as saying that the continent wanted a vaccine "free of patents, quickly manufactured and distributed and free for all".

"Nobody should be pushed to the bottom of the vaccine line because of where they live or what they earn," he said.

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