COVID-19 Clinical Trials in Africa? It Won’t Be The First Time

Comments by two French doctors fueled a global public outrage after the doctors suggested testing Africans with possible treatment against COVID-19.

“Should we not do this study in Africa, where there are no face masks, no treatments, and no ICUs? A bit like it is done for some studies on AIDS, wherewith prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed, and they don’t protect themselves,” Dr Jean-Paul Mira, head of ICU services at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, was quoted saying.

However, suggesting to test Africans for medical purposes is not something new.

Colonial Africa

Countries in Africa have been victims of medical experimentation since the dawn of colonialization. In the late 19th century, as countries like France, Germany, Spain and others made efforts to seize land in Africa, a disease outbreak was threatening the conquest.

Research conducted by researcher Helen Tilley shows that when the germ theory of disease began to be studied around the world, pharmaceutical treatments along with studies of vaccinations, were a rising trend.

A disease known as African Trypanosomiasis became an ongoing pandemic in the regions of the Congo, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda at the time. The disease was caused by the infection of tsetse fly bites.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), trypanosomiasis, also known as the “sleeping sickness”, causes mild symptoms at first – fevers, headaches, muscle and joint aches. However, as the disease takes its toll on the body, personality changes along with sleep disturbance can also result. Worst case scenario, paralysis can also occur. If left untreated, the disease can be fatal.

Following the outbreak, Tilley notes that both the French and the Germans developed drug treatments that were near-deadly in dosages.

The British endorsed forced quarantine in villages.

According to Tilley, in 1955, a British physician at Oxford University claimed that Africa was a dream come true when it came to medical experimentation.

“It is the almost unlimited field that Africa offers for clinical research that I find so enthralling … problems of the first interest abound, [and] clinical material is unlimited.”

Tilley then goes on to note that during the colonial era, there were no ethical standards for human subjects and the use of unsterile syringes and contaminated blood was the cause of many HIV infections. Moreover, there was no consensus being asked of by the countless African victims being operated on by the European doctors.

Post-colonial Africa

The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa and also one of the poorest nations. According to the World Food Program, 48% of the country’s population lives in poverty and 10.3% of children suffer from acute malnutrition. The 2015 Ebola outbreak, along with years of drought, has impacted the country negatively. Despite the economic status of the nation, The Gambia is one of the most researched countries in the world.

According to Ann H. Kelly’s Para-States and Medical Science, the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) has labs and stations on the north and south banks of the Gambian River. Clinical studies have mainly been focused on malaria yet experiments have been conducted on the population to gain insight on diet, agriculture and transmittable diseases. It is also worth noting that Hepatitis B testing and treatment has also been done conducted in the nation. You can read more about the study here.

The Gambia is not the only country in Africa that has been a destination for such ventures by foreign-based research teams and corporate pharmaceutical companies. Nigeria and Zimbabwe have both been targets of clinical trials lacking consent and comprising forced medical procedures.

The world’s biggest research-based pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, is notoriously known for its acts in the 1996 meningitis epidemic. A study done in 2000 reports that the meningitis outbreak that occurred between January and June 1996, had 109,580 recorded cases and 11,717 deaths. It took the combined powers of many health organizations and governments to bring the epidemic to a stop.

However, before the epidemic could end, one of the largest medical controversies followed. Pfizer tested a drug by the name of Trovan in Kano, Nigeria. The experimental antibiotic was given to a hundred children promising it would bring a stop to the disease. 11 children died in the process of the clinical trial; 5 died on Trovan. Other children suffered drastic side effects such as deafness, blindness and even brain damage. An investigation later revealed that the drug was administered illegally. Neither the Nigerian government nor the parents of the children gave consent to Pfizer to conduct the trials. In 2011, the pharmaceutical company paid a $175,000 to the families of the victims and reached a $75 million settlement with the Kano state government. It is worth noting that the drug Trovan was dropped from shipping to the US and Europe due to inflicted liver damage.

The case in Zimbabwe dealt with trials conducted on HIV positive patients in the 1990’s. The trials were conducted by American physicians and the University of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe previously held the record for the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases. However, in recent years, the country has experienced a significant decline in cases. Due to the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, the CDC, the WHO and the National Institute of Health (NIH) all funded the illegal clinical trials in Zimbabwe. Many of the patients were not given informed consent nor notified on the dangers of the treatments. The outcome of the trials led to more HIV/AIDS patients as an estimated number of 1,000 caught the disease. To this date, there is a little to no information on the clinical trial and the consequences after it was conducted.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness story still rings a bell in today’s age, as Africans have been deemed lab rats and inhuman by the medical world. Given the limited information we have on illegal medical experimentations, some may wonder when such will end. Colonial rule might appear to be over on the surface but pharmaceutical companies and Western influence hold countries in Africa by the neck. In the midst of a global pandemic, the WHO has made it clear that Africa won’t be a testing ground for a possible coronavirus vaccine. How can we be sure?

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  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article from the standpoint of exposing the consistent exploitation of Africa and Africans. i.e. resources, including human beings, for other’s gains, all in the name of science. Sadly enough, this exploitation of people of African descent has occurred in other parts of the world, too. i.e. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the U.S. between 1932 through 1972, where African American men were researchers provided no effective care for the disease.