(AP) — A protest against Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine trial was underway Wednesday as experts note a worrying level of resistance and misinformation around testing on the continent.
Anti-vaccine sentiment in Africa is “the worst I’ve ever seen”, the CEO of the GAVI vaccine alliance, Seth Berkley, told an African Union vaccine conference last week.
“In general, people in Africa know the diseases and want to protect each other,” he said. “In this case, the rumour mill has been dramatic.”
The trial that began last week in Johannesburg is part of one already underway in Britain of the vaccine developed at the University of Oxford. Some 2,000 volunteers in South Africa are expected to take part.
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 COVID-19 vaccine trial in South Africa, told reporters and others in a webinar Sunday.
But the small band of demonstrators who gathered Wednesday at the University of the Witwatersrand, where the trial is based, reflect long-running fears among some in Africa over testing drugs on 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 organiser Phapano Phasha told The Associated Press ahead of the event. “We believe they are manipulating the vulnerable.”
The activist and political commentator brought up the widely circulated remarks earlier this year by a French researcher, Jean-Paul Mira, who 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 compared it to some AIDS studies: “In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”
“The narrative we got is our continent is a dumping ground,” Phasha said. “First ensure the vaccine works elsewhere before bringing it to Africa,” she added.
The French researcher later apologised for his comments, but they continue to circulate on social media among those opposed to vaccine testing in Africa. Meanwhile, anger among African health officials and others was swift.
The Ethiopian director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called the comments “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.”
It’s not clear when Africa’s first vaccine trial will begin showing results, but a worried Madhi has 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.