Protesters rallying against Africa’s first coronavirus vaccine have accused researchers of ‘manipulating the vulnerable’ into volunteering for testing of Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine.
Around 2,000 people in South Africa are expected to take part in the Johannesburg trial, which began last week.
The vaccine is also being tested in the UK, Brazil and researchers say that it needs to be tested in Africa to ensure it is not affected by local conditions in the country.
But demonstrators gathering at the University of the Witwatersrand, where the trial is based, burned their masks and claimed tests were being carried out on poor people who don’t understand the risks.
‘The people chosen as volunteers for the vaccination, they look as if they’re from poor backgrounds, not qualified enough to understand’ protest organizer Phapano Phasha said ahead of the event.
‘We believe they are manipulating the vulnerable’, the activist and political commentator added. Some 2,000 volunteers in South Africa are expected to take part.
Researchers must first ensure the vaccine works elsewhere before bringing it to Africa, Phasha said.
‘The narrative we got is our continent is a dumping ground’, she said in reference to the widely circulated remarks made earlier this year by French researcher Jean-Paul Mira.
Mira had said: ‘Shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?’ and compared it to AIDS studies.
‘In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.’
The French researcher later apologized for his comments, but they continue to circulate on social media among vaccine opponents.
It’s important that vaccines be tested in Africa to see how they perform in the local context, professor of vaccinology Shabir Madhi, leader of the new trial in South Africa, told reporters and others in a webinar Sunday.
He said volunteers were given an explanation about the trial and possible risks and had to score 80% on a questionnaire to take part.
Phasha asked why more affluent parts of South African society had not been targeted.
‘I believe in science,’ she said. ‘And I believe that science has managed to solve most of the problems society is faced with. I’m not against vaccinations, I’m against profiteering.’
Fellow protesters sang and danced with banners saying ‘We not guinea pigs’ and ‘No safe vaccine.’
‘If you want to test, test in the areas which they call the epicenter of the world,’ demonstrator Sean Goss said.
Experts have noted growing resistance and misinformation around testing across the continent.
Anti-vaccine sentiment is escalating to ‘the worst I’ve ever seen,’ the CEO of the GAVI vaccine alliance, Seth Berkley, said at a conference last week.
‘In general, people in Africa know the diseases and want to protect each other,’ he said. ‘In this case, the rumor mill has been dramatic.’
The trial is part of one already underway in Britain to test the vaccine and has been developed at the University of Oxford.
Meanwhile, anger among African health officials and others was swift in response to Mira’s comments earlier this year.
The Ethiopian director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, decried them as ‘racist’ and a ‘hangover from a colonial mentality.’
The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, called the remarks ‘very disgusting’ and ‘condescending.’
‘Africa CDC will continue to work very closely with the World Health Organization to ensure that only ethically and scientifically sound clinical trials for vaccines and therapies will be conducted in Africa, using exactly the same standards and principles as those employed elsewhere in the world,’ Nkengasong said in a statement.
‘These principles will be guided by respect for the dignity of Africans, the beneficence and non-maleficence, and justice.’
Africa has seen troubled testing and treatment over the years.
Some families in Nigeria won payouts in a legal fight with Pfizer after several children died of meningitis in a clinical trial for an oral antibiotic in 1996.
And earlier this year, South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality said dozens of HIV-positive women had been forced or coerced into sterilisation after giving birth at public hospitals.
It’s not clear when Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial will begin showing results, but a concerned Madhi said the local surge in confirmed cases could mean seeing them months earlier than expected.
South Africa now has more than 151,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the most on the African continent. Africa overall has more than 400,000 cases.
As the pandemic picks up speed in Africa, health officials are urging that any vaccine be distributed equitably around the world.
A quarter of all vaccines for other diseases are used in Africa and yet the continent has little production capacity, putting its 1.3 billion people at risk of being near the end of the line for any vaccine.
The new global attention to racial injustice creates a key time to act, the head of the Nigeria Center for Disease Control told the AU vaccine conference last week.
‘If we don’t use this moment when, for better or worse, we have the political attention of people, we will regret it,’ Chikwe Ihekweazu said.
Africa must play a role in the new vaccine trials, the vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Mamokgethi Phakeng, and the chair of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Thokozani Majozi, wrote this month in the Sunday Times newspaper.
They, too, brought up the French researcher’s comments and they criticized the calls for an ‘African-only’ approach to finding a vaccine, saying it would pull the continent even further from the global stage.
‘It would be tragic if Africa chose not to take part, at all levels, in clinical trials of a Covid-19 vaccine – or any medical treatment that could save lives,’ they said.