The Coronavirus Vaccine and Medical Racism in Africa

Filippo Angeli
Slow Food delivers food supplies in South Africa
Source: Slow Food

At the beginning of April, the WHO dissociated itself from the declarations of two French doctors, Camille Locht and Jean-Paul Mira. The latter asserted during a TV broadcast that it would be fruitful to carry a study to find a Coronavirus vaccine in Africa since the continent does not have sanitary resources such as surgical masks. 

These allegations may seem isolated from the principles of the WHO but the truth is the continent suffers from long-standing medical racism

For instance, in 1996 the pharmaceutical company Pfizer conducted experiments during a meningitis epidemic in Kano, Nigeria, without receiving any consent from the families of the children used for the tests. Furthermore, in 2014, during the Ebola epidemic 269 thousand samples of blood from patients of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia were used for foreign research without the consent of the local researcher who collected the samples, let alone of those from whom the samples were taken.

While this leaves no doubt about the fact that many unscrupulous doctors perceive Africans as their guinea pigs, on the other hand conducting medical researches in Africa holds great scientific potential for the local and the world population. However, this has often been ignored. The lack of focus for Africa in studies on the human genome compromised scientific progress as well as the chance for a better understanding and representation of the population of a whole continent.

Today, with the spread of Coronavirus, we have the opportunity to revalue this chance and to find a solution for a pandemic disease that has inevitably changed the face of our world. And this opportunity can only be exploited at best if we start investing in an even distribution of medical resources and equipment in the continent, not only in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt, which alone represent ⅔ of the Resource and Development spending.

Moreover, a project of this magnitude requires a crucial dose of ethical obligations. For starters, local consent is necessary and results must be shared with those who collaborated in finding them, even if “only” by donating a sample of their DNA. Communication officers and writers can collaborate in order to make the results clear. 

Additionally, we must address the need for compensation, especially when private pharmaceutical companies exploit African epidemics for raw profits. Medical equipment, free access to diagnostic services, cheaper vaccines, or medicines: these are just examples of the myriad of possible solutions for an equal and fair collaboration.

The implications of such ethical obligations would be multiple, however, the trust in medical development from locals is one of the most essentials. Especially after observing how certain countries like Madagascar are promoting and testing non-scientific natural solutions for Coronavirus on their inhabitants, which are often and arguably comprehensively sceptic about Western medical products.

President of Madagascar Rajoelina promoting an herbal drink against Coronvirus
Source: BBC News

Finally, on an ideological level scientific innovation must move away from its Orientalist way of thinking. Edward Said (1978) denounced how Europe constantly ‘otherized’ non-Western civilizations, whilst exploiting their natural richness by justifying it as a mission to bring culture and development.

The declarations of the two French doctors are deeply embedded in this type of reasoning, but they are not alone. China and the USA have recently fought over China’s construction of a medical centre in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia since Trump saw Beijing’s action as an intention to possess crucial genomic material. There is no doubt, for many it is still a matter of commercial interest and not of genuine scientific collaborations and development. That is why an ideological shift is now, more than ever, necessary.

Development and balanced North-South collaborations will never be a reality if we do not move away from the 20th-century colonial perspective of exploiting Africa’s resources, much less if we do not deconstruct our neo-imperial view of the West as the charitable-donor and the ‘Rest’ as the mere recipient. 

  • Is a balanced North-South collaboration a plausible reality or does it inevitably carry racist implications?
  • Which are alternative and effective methods of clarity for African populations to wittingly consent to medical research? 
  • Which impediments does medical racism create for the research of the Coronavirus vaccine? 

Suggested readings

Neil Munshi, 2020. “How unlocking the secrets of African DNA could change the world.” FT, (5 March 2020). 

Lara Gautier, Sieleunou and Kalolo, 2018. “Deconstructing the notion of “global health research partnerships” across Northern and African contexts” BMC Medical Ethics.

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