WHO, Africa And Vaccine Testing

A French doctor in a TV debate last week created a storm when he implied that Africa was the best testing ground for new vaccines for the Coronavirus.  He received a chorus of negative responses implying that Africans cannot be used as guinea pigs.  Not anymore. And the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he was “so appalled” by the remarks and that “these kind of racist remarks” don’t help in a time when the world needs solidarity.

The debate was between Camille Locht from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and Jean-Paul Mira who heads the Intensive Medicine and Intensive Care Unit of Paris’ Cochin Hospital.  Both men were debating how to conduct large-scale clinical testing to assess whether the BCG/tuberculosis vaccine could protect people from the raging COVID-19 pandemic. The BCG vaccine is an old vaccine known for the prevention of tuberculosis. But the debate got heated and Mira then said:“If I can be provocative, shouldn’t this study be done in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care, a bit like it is done in some studies on AIDS or among prostitutes.  We try things because we know they (sex workers) are highly exposed and they don’t protect themselves.  What do you think about that?”

Prof. Locht then said: “You’re right, by the way.  We’re currently thinking in parallel about a study in Africa with the same type of approach, with the BCG/tuberculosis vaccine and a placebo – I think we are going to consider it.  But that doesn’t prevent us from thinking in parallel about a study in Europe and Australia.”

It is immediately apparent that the doctors were not talking about a COVID-19 vaccine or to use Africa as a testing ground for COVID-19 vaccine. Prof. Mira promptly apologised, saying: “I want to present all my apologies to those who were hurt, shocked and felt insulted by the remarks that I clumsily expressed in LCI (TV channel) this week.” The WHO Director-General said he regretted that such remarks could be heard from scientists in the 21st Century but he gave assurance that this will not happen in Africa. Africa cannot and will not be a testing ground for any vaccine, saying: “We will follow all rules to test any vaccine or therapeutics all over the world using exactly the same rule, whether it’s in Europe, Africa or wherever.”

It is obvious that the French doctor was reflecting the poor image of Africa in Europe concerning the situation on the ground, which informed the notion that “there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care.”  While some of these facilities exist, they are far fewer compared to the society’s needs.  If Africa also lacks more masks and COVID-19 treatment, so does the rest of the world.  A major concern, however, is that some critical equipment is lacking in many countries.  It is said that the Central African Republic has but a single ventilator for the whole population of 4.6 million. Millions of Nigerians are hearing of ventilators for the first time since the eruption of the pandemic, and the government is trying to rally automotive companies to modify their systems to produce some ventilators for Nigeria.

Dr. Mira may have misspoken but it is sometimes shocking to observe the level of ignorance of Africa that exists in Europe and other parts of the world. Africa has to learn to ignore the prejudiced and the ignorant.  The real problem has not been what racists and those who are stuck on old stereotypes think. The problem is what we as Africans do.

The level of poverty in Africa is known but it does not excuse the level of the neglect of our health institutions.  We have the example of Cuba which, in spite of decades of hostile economic sanctions imposed on it by the United States, still built the best health care service in the world.  We hope the COVID-19 pandemic can open the eyes of our leaders to appreciate that, indeed, health is wealth. If we pay diligent attention to healthcare, we need not be nervous over any pandemic or would we be the butt of international ridicule as happened last week. The testing of vaccines may not be the equivalent of a French atomic test in the Sahara for which Nigeria broke diplomatic relations with France in the 1960s, but Nigerians see the incredible gaps in our healthcare security now revealed by the Coronavirus.

Daily Sun Editorial

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