JOHANNESBURG — Protesters against Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine trial burned their face masks 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 rumor 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 organizer 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 apologized 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.”
Madhi, the professor in charge of the South Africa vaccine trial, has said volunteers were given an explanation about the trial and possible risks and then had to score 80% on a questionnaire to take part.
But why not target more affluent parts of South African society? Phasha asked.
“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.
Africa has seen troubled testing and treatment. 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 sterilization after giving birth at public hospitals.
It’s not clear when Africa’s first COVID-19 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.
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 COVID-19 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.
AP journalist Nqobile Ntshangase in Johannesburg contributed.