No coronavirus vaccine should turn Africans into lab rats

No coronavirus vaccine should turn Africans into lab rats
Comment: Thought using Africans to develop vaccines was a thing of colonial times past? Think again, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
10 Apr, 2020
The West has a long history of medical testing on people of African descent [AFP]
In a jaw dropping interview about coronavirus on French TV last week, Doctor Jean-Paul Mira, head of the intensive care unit at the Cochin Hospital, Paris asked a research scientist, "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?" Needless to say, many took to social media to express their outrage at such a statement, and soon, #AfricansAreNotLabRats was trending. 

Professor Locht, research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, replied "You're right. We are thinking of a parallel study in Africa to use this same kind of approach with the BCG [tuberculosis vaccination] placebos". 

The uproar led to public apologies from both individuals as well as their employers, but in truth, this "incident" demonstrated the dark realities of global healthcare and research. 

The most privileged in our society continue to receive trusted treatment and care, while the poorest and most at risk around the world, are, at the best of times, afforded medical scraps, and are otherwise deprived of treatment because they do not have the means to acquire it.

Indeed, the Congolese government 
agreed to tests being carried out on its population, despite the announcement by Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that "Africa can't and won't be a testing ground for any vaccine". 

In reality, since the days of slavery, people of African descent have been used for medical experiments. A British doctor in the 18th century by the name of John Quier used 850 slaves in his study of smallpox. He would infect slaves in the Caribbean and "push the boundaries" of his trials by studying the impact on menstruating and pregnant women, as well as new born babies. 

In truth, this 'incident' demonstrated the dark realities of global healthcare and research

These degrading practices on the Jamaican plantations followed black people to the segregated southern US. From 1932 to 1972 the Public Health Service used hundreds of African-American men in Tuskegee for syphilis experiments. They drew people into "a study" with the promise of free healthcare, food and burial insurance. 

To this day, medical testing on citizens of the Global South is not a foreign concept. A document by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations published a few years ago reported some of the unethical clinical tests which were taking place-at times without the patients' knowledge-throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in countries such as Uganda, where drug trials caused thousands of side effects and cost the lives of many women. Another report published in 2017 highlighted the impacts of clinical trials and unethical practices in Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. 

So it seems the old colonial approach laid out by Medical Officer J.F. Corson in Tanganyika in 1938, that "when the experiments are sufficiently important, the use of African volunteers is justified", is not an outdated one. The difference in the present day, however, is that it is the greed of the private pharmaceutical industry, which drives this continued exploitation. 

Racist tropes and the dehumanisation of brown and black people helped justify the enslavement and exploitation of indigenous populations. This was a method applied at home, in the West, too. Target the poor, and the "undesirables" - prostitutes, inmates, Jewish people, Roma - to ensure that few will care about them, let alone hold perpetrators to account. 

There are, for example, several important cases of testing on prisoners in the US including sterilisation and testicle transplants performed on convicts in San Quentin Prison, the Stateville Penitentiary Malaria study which lasted 29 years, as well as the Newgate Prison trials where those given the death penalty were offered freedom if they volunteered to be infected with smallpox. All of these participants, regardless of whether they were informed or not, were victims. 

Read more: UK coronavirus response forces most vulnerable to shoulder the burden

Sonia Shah, author of The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World's Poorest Patientssummarised the setup perfectly; "ethical oversight is minimal and desperate patients abound." They were poor, marginalised, and desperate - the exact conditions sought by multinational pharmaceutical companies across the Global South today. 

Mira's mention that there are no provisions in Africa - to seemingly justify the use of Africans in the development of a vaccine - simply echoed the basis on which big pharmaceutical business is building its profit.

The poorest across the Global South have little to no access to good healthcare and medication, and like vultures, companies swoop in and provide something that could, as a best case scenario, improve their condition. Inversely, if the tests fail, so the logic goes, well they would have died anyway because of the lack of resources, money, or healthcare infrastructure.

This situation is not random, emerging from a lack of luck. It is, instead, the outcome of long term processes of under-development in the Global South. Leaving aside even the continuing effects of European colonialism and slavery, the last four decades ave seen the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) by the World Bank and the IMF across the world, which have forcefully integrated poor countries into the global market, and perpetuated rather than tackled the continued growth of Global South debt. 

The processes of privatisation and rollback of state funding, which are at the core of the SAPs, have undermined welfare provision, state infrastructure, and employment, leaving the targeted countries vulnerable and unable to respond effectively to external shocks. 

As long as there is an opportunity to exploit for profit, the necessary justifications, excuses and hateful ideologies will be mobilised to facilitate such actions. Western empires have a long history, at home and abroad, of targeting the most vulnerable for unethical practices. We are likely to see this intensified in the weeks and months to come, as we all attempt to survive and overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.

Western empires have a long history, at home and abroad, of targeting the most vulnerable for unethical practices

If essential equipment from ventilators, to testing kits and PPE are scarce in hospitals in wealthy London, what catastrophic damage should we expect across the poorest countries of the planet?

Western nations, the pharmaceutical industry, and individual researchers have spent decades using the populations of the Global South as lab rats, lining their pockets with the fruits of their research. The use of human guinea pigs in Africa appears set to continue through this current crisis, as a strategy to accelerate the discovery of a coronavirus vaccine, demonstrating once more that disease and pandemics are not great levellers. 

The truth is that pharmaceutical companies and research labs should be compelled to cater to people's most basic needs during this time, or face state takeover.

No-one should be allowed to profit from a global pandemic, nor should the most vulnerable on the planet be used as test populations for the richest and most comfortable. The way we collectively fight our way through the current crisis will determine the kind of society we (re)build in the years and decades ahead.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.