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Africa, forget past mistakes and  embrace COVID-19 vaccine trials

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Added 21st May 2020 01:37 PM

For scientists who work on vaccine, Africa should get involved at the development stage of the vaccine. Quoted in a BBC article arguing why Africa must be involved, Uganda’s own Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) explained that “We have different circumstances, different genetic make-up that may affect how the vaccine works.”

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Opiyo Oloya

For scientists who work on vaccine, Africa should get involved at the development stage of the vaccine. Quoted in a BBC article arguing why Africa must be involved, Uganda’s own Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) explained that “We have different circumstances, different genetic make-up that may affect how the vaccine works.”

By Opiyo Oloya

Scientists around the world are burning the midnight oil in a flat-out race to be the first to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. President Trump even coined Operation Warp Speed to underscore the urgency for getting a vaccine by year’s end.  According to scientists who have worked on vaccines the process of developing a vaccine usually takes two years or more. Operation Warp Speed is watching 14 vaccine candidates to see which one can be developed into 100 million doses by November 2020.

According to the CDC, promising vaccines are already being tested on a few human candidates in America.  A vaccine developed by Moderna Inc. based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was injected in 45 healthy Americans in Seattle, Washington.  Eight of the subjects developed antibodies similar to those found in people who recovered from coronavirus.  The vaccine, in other words, successfully tricked the body into believing it was under attack by coronavirus and to deploy soldiers to fight off the illness. 

Anticipating the development of a vaccine, more than 140 world leaders and elders in an open letter to health ministers who assembled on Monday at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, emphatically called on the world to not forget Africa. Including the president of South Africa and chairman of African Union Cyril Ramaphosa, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, former presidents and prime-ministers and the Executive Director of UNAIDS and UN Under-Secretary-General, Winnie Byanyima, they wrote, “Our world will only be safer once everyone can benefit from the science and access a vaccine - and that is a political challenge.”

In short, the influential leaders challenged the delegates at the assembly for a “people’s vaccine” that can be administered free to all who need it. But here is a problem with a vaccine for coronavirus. Not everyone agrees that Africa should get in line for a vaccine, especially if getting in line means trial testing on the continent. Amplified by conspiracy-minded individuals, many are wary of Africans being used as guinea pigs for testing the efficacy of the vaccine.

They point to past cases where Africa was a testing ground for dubious drugs that created havoc for the victims. There was the thalidomide in the 1950s which led to children born without hands and feet. There was the 1994 case where 17,000 women in Zimbabwe were administered AZT drugs without proper consent or understanding of the consequences. And there was the Pfizer test in Kano, Nigeria in 1996 where the drug Trovan was administered to children, eleven of whom died.

Capping suspicion about vaccine trials was the unfortunate utterances in early April by two French scientists who suggested that the vaccine for tuberculosis should be tested in Africa to see if it works for the coronavirus.  Dr. Camille Locht, head of research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) and Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin hospital in Paris were on French TV channel LCI discussing a vaccine trial in Europe and Australia. Dr. Mira said, "If I can be provocative, shouldn't we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?”  He went on to reference prostitutes as the best candidates for testing vaccine for HIV-AIDS because they are the most at risk.

They later clarified their statements—what they meant was that Africa not be excluded from world vaccine tests. But the damage was already done. The two were roundly condemned for their callous, unthoughtful, and racists agenda. But the question remains—where does Africa stand on the question of testing a vaccine for the coronavirus?

For scientists who work on vaccine, Africa should get involved at the development stage of the vaccine. Quoted in a BBC article arguing why Africa must be involved, Uganda’s own Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) explained that “We have different circumstances, different genetic make-up that may affect how the vaccine works.”  At the development stage, according to scientists, a vaccine is calibrated for different population groups. While a vaccine may work for America or Europe, it must be made to work for Africa.

But Twitter users responding to the BBC article were having none of it. Corrine Cash tweeted, “Oh my. The English telling Africans what to do. Will it ever stop?” Another user who goes by the handle Sweet Tea chimed in, “After what the US did to Black Americans, we’re going to be suspicious of Euro-Caucasia treating Black people as guinea pigs.” Still another Twitter user going by the handle Trini Girl put it succinctly, writing, “Africa is done with colonizers.”

The debate ultimately may be moot. The ferocity of coronavirus and its persistence may force Africa to put aside bad past experiences with faulty and unethical medical trials and embrace the ongoing vaccine tests for coronavirus. In taking that step, undoubtedly, many will recall that many good vaccines have worked well on the continent—The vaccines for polio, smallpox, measles, tetanus, and others have been successful. Moreover, with more African scientists like Dr. Kyobutungi and WHO’s Director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus taking charge, Africa can finally begin to feel safe from racist agenda that aims to turn the continent into a giant lab.

Simply, we cannot afford to be left behind to wallow in fear of the past. Instead Africa must decide on its own terms how to proceed with vaccine for the coronavirus. The reason is simple—what is good for America may not work for Africa. Whatever vaccine will be made available to the rest of the world may not be available to Africa.  But in moving forward what’s important is to demand stringent protocols and safeguards for testing any vaccine for use on the continent.   

Opiyo.Oloya@gmail.com
Twitter: @Opiyooloya

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