Social media was recently agog with attacks, criticisms and insults directed at two French scientists who irresponsibly suggested that a Covid-19 vaccine under development should be tested in Africa.

It was exciting to see blacks, whites, and people of different complexions from Accra to Paris to New York match the recklessness of the French scientists’ comments with an equal measure of fierce fury. The verdict from the popular jury throughout Africa and beyond was unanimous: “We will not stand by and watch the neocolonialists do to us what they unfairly did to our forefathers.”

But now that tempers are calm, let’s attempt some levelheaded analysis of the issue and ask the obvious question: If we Africans don’t want to be guinea pigs for a coronavirus vaccine, who should? Some will say the obvious answer is the Europeans, Americans and Australians who are developing the vaccines, of-course.

So that means we are waiting for the West to develop the vaccines, test them on their citizens and confirm the safety and efficacy. Then, just as has happened in the past with fights against diseases in Africa, the World Health Organization will lead a donors’ conference at which these advanced countries will again pledge to pay for millions of vials of the vaccines to be shipped to Africa free-of-charge so governments can distribute them to the people. Is that all Africa can contribute to the development of the world?

Earlier this month, the WHO published a list of 70 Covid-19 vaccines currently under development across the world by government organizations, academic institutions, private research firms and biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies.

Not one of the developers is an African-based institution. They are all American, Canadian, European, Australian or Asian organizations. The closest link any of the developers had to Africa is that one of them —Denmark-based AdaptVac — has a South African CEO, Wian De Jongh. That’s all.

Hard times and hard questions

It’s about time we Africans ask ourselves what our own contribution is to global development and whether we are proud and happy about our current standing in the world as it exists today. Why is it that even for diseases like Ebola that first emerged in Africa, only US institutions, the Russian government and pharmaceutical companies based in the US, Europe and elsewhere outside Africa are developing vaccines against it?

Why is it that although Africa recorded 92% of all malaria cases in the world in 2017, according to WHO data, governments in Africa, South East Asia and the East Mediterranean, where the disease is endemic, contributed only US$900 million to malaria control programs and global research, whilst the US alone invested a whooping US$1.2 billion?

What investments are we Africans making in scientific research that can be scaled up to attract the interest of the rest of the world? When will we develop vaccines against major global illnesses, scale up their production and export samples to the West for them to use in healing their diseases?

When will Africa apply indigenous knowledge to develop medication for prevention of diseases like Covid-19, test it on our own population, confirm its safety and quality and then take steps to introduce those vaccines in France and other parts of the world? We have complained and criticized and attacked others for taking advantage of us for far too long. When will we also step up to the plate and begin doing things differently, not only for ourselves but for the rest of the world? Aren’t we tired of being donor partners whose only role in the entire equation is “being donated to”?

What exactly did the French scientists say?

Jean-Paul Mira, who heads the intensive care unit of the Cochin Hospital in Paris, and Camille Locht, who is research director at France’s national health institute, Inserm, were on a French TV programme discussing trials set to be launched in Europe and Australia to test if a tuberculosis vaccine will work against Covid-19.

“Should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s been done for certain AIDS studies, where among prostitutes, we try things, because we know that they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves?” Mira asked. “You are right,” Locht replied. “And by the way, we are thinking of it in parallel about a study in Africa using this same approach.”

These comments raise eyebrows because there is a long history, which cannot be forgotten, of exploiting Africans and black populations in attempt to solve some of medicine’s biggest problems.

History of exploitation

Many of the established practices in gynecology today are credited to American physician J. Marion Sims (referred to as the father of modern gynecology), who in the 19th century experimented inhumanely on female African slaves without anesthesia to try out various techniques in the field.

Between 1932 and 1972, the United States Public Health Service unethically observed African American men in Alabama with the syphilis disease, under the guise of providing them free health care, to understand the natural history of untreated syphilis. Eventually when a cure for the disease became available, it was withheld from the men until a leak to the media blew the cover off the infamous study. That’s why African American communities remain apprehensive to this day about participating in clinical trials.

France, when it colonized African countries like Cameroun and former French Equatorial Africa between the 1920s and 1950s, oversaw experiments that allowed millions of people suffering from diseases like sleeping sickness to be injected with medications that were subsequently proved to cause blindness and deaths.

Transforming anger on social media into action

If only we had social media then to pour out the kind of rage that greeted the comments of the French scientists, then maybe all that injustice would not have been done to our forefathers. The generations before us were not so lucky with their protests against exploitations of vulnerable African populations for the benefit of the world at large. That is why Africa must seize this moment and turn the tides around forever. The opportunities afforded us in today’s interconnected world are nothing like what our forefathers had, and we must not waste them.

Africa is hub to a lot of efficacious, disease-curing indigenous medicine. In many places in rural Africa, diseases feared the world over, including stroke, hypertension, asthma and malaria, are being treated with traditional herbal preparations that have struggled to gain world acclaim and acceptance because we are not investing enough research in them and they are poorly regulated. It’s about time African governments dedicate resources for research into how traditional African medicine (minus the spiritual connotations) can be used to prevent and cure some of these pandemics.

African academic institutions and research laboratories should be resourced to aggressively go behind the curtains and explore what may exist in our large and biodiverse forests to save the world from these diseases. The solution could be right here in Africa. We just need to make the effort and be serious about wanting to find it.

The time for Africa to increase investments in research, science and technology is now. Not only in the area of health but also in dealing with our food security challenges and general under development.

Otherwise, in the near future more powerful countries and institutions will make another attempt to trample on our dignity and use us as guinea pigs in attempting to resolve global pandemics like Covid-19. There is very little chance that we will be lucky that time around as well.

About the author:

 Joseph Opoku Gakpo is an environment, agriculture and rural development journalist based in Accra – Ghana. He produces radio and television documentaries, as well as writes feature articles on the above-mentioned areas for broadcast and publishing. He is an agricultural biotechnologist by training.

Image by Thoko Chikondi