It’s another day of working remotely from home. I had just finished reviewing the last file and shut down my computer. I glanced at the TV, there were some pictures of hope. The social distancing seems to be working. Wearing a face mask is gaining attention and slowing the virus. There are active conversations of making a vaccine for COVID-19. I heaved a sigh of relief and picked up my phone. I tapped my WhatsApp and again, similar messages from yesterday and the day before yesterday. Only today, this message is coming from more contacts and is sounding more desperate. The messages sounded like this:
“I am a proud son or daughter of Mother Africa and I stand up to say no to the upcoming testing of COVID-19 vaccine in Africa. Africa is not the laboratory of COVID-19. Africa is not an experimental lab for COVID-19. Africa is not your trash. I say no, let’s say no to the COVID-19 vaccine test on our people”.
This week after realizing there were over 50 of these messages over a few days, I was alarmed. Some of the messages accused western countries of using the pretext of COVID-19 vaccination to impose population control throughout Africa. They may do this, accusers claim, by illegally using vaccines that may end up sterilizing their victims. Others believed that the West plan to use Africans as guinea pigs; a case reminiscent of the unethical HIV test trials done decades ago. Many African view that as a major factor in spreading AIDs in the continent. To them, without subjecting this to further deliberation, this is a total “No-No!” There is a clarion call for armed resistance against the upcoming COVID-19 illegal vaccine test set to take place in Africa
My responses to some of the senders emphasized the nuances between a legitimate mistrust due to historical evidence and the absolute need to support the clear and sound process of vaccine production responsible for the rise of life expectancy throughout the world. After talking to several people, I realized the anxiety was real. To many, this was the proverbial mountain worth dying on. The lines are drawn, and the axe of war unearthed. Africans will not be the guinea pigs to be sacrificed on the altar of COVID-19 Vaccines.
Still alarmed, I called Her Majesty Queen Mother Dòwòti Désir Hounon Houna II Guely, a scholar on African history, religion and traditions to discuss this development. She raised the legitimate concerns of the global African community towards the medical establishment, as our historic experiences caused trauma to the Black body, and psyche. We talked about the genuine mistrust by Africans and African descendants based on documented past practices such as the infamous Tuskegee Clinical Study of Untreated Syphilis by the U.S. government on Black males between 1932 and 1972. I expressed my frustration to Queen Mother Désir-Hounon that for years, as president of the Frederick County NAACP, I have been pushing the pharmaceutical industry to include Africans and people of African descent in clinical trials to make sure resulting medication will work better for us. Unfortunately, the current hysteria raised by an experimental vaccine untested at the source of its origins negates that cause.
Following my discussion with the Queen Mother, I tuned on CNN and voila! Anderson Cooper was hosting Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Mr. Neal Browning, one of the 45 Coronavirus Vaccine trial volunteers. Some quick research led me to an article by Anwar Iqbal in the April 4th issue of the Dawn News, entitled “Volunteers hope vaccine will be found ‘sooner than later.”
In the article Iqbal mentioned two Americans: Mrs. Jennifer Haller and Mr. Neal Browning who have received trial shots of the coronavirus vaccine in March 2020, and have been going through the process of evaluating the efficacy of the vaccine.
Mrs. Haller and Mr. Browning are both part of a group of 45 healthy individuals who volunteered for a coronavirus vaccine trial in Washington State. In the interview with Anderson Cooper, Browning clearly explained the process and the reason he felt compelled to join the trial. I was heartened by the courage of these individuals. Whatever the outcome their trails would bring the world would stand closer to mitigating the tyranny of the pandemic.
I felt obligated to send a lucid message throughout Africa and the African Diaspora to reassure communities that there are clear protocols and processes for vaccine validation and testing that are both legitimate and ethical, and should be welcomed in Africa. What is unacceptable however are any unethical and illegal processes used in the past. The irony is of course, Africans are known to have created the first vaccines in the world. The history of variolation documented as early as 1706, reveals that Africans forcibly arrived in the Americas, were already vaccinated against small pox while in their homelands. A practice totally unknown in Europe or the Great British. It should also be noted, since 1974, the World Health Organization made great efforts to eradicate six childhood illnesses on the African continent. While it could be argued that these important public health initiatives were put in place to protect the Europeans on the continent from disease more than being acts of altruism or service to Africans, both populations benefitted from the inoculations. Vaccines are needed.
In this instance, given the urgency of controlling the current pandemic of COVID-19, rather than acting with utter distrust, we in the global African community should remain vigilant and hold the feet of those in charge throughout Africa to the fire, along with their counterparts in the west. We can hold them accountable to ensure that the protocols and processes of vaccine validation that are offered and accepted by African governments are ethical and consistent with best practices. This can be done with a clean campaign of information. Ethical, and legal processes that are transparent and accountable will engender social trust. Under controlled, well-regulated circumstances, that are participant-oriented, and that speak to the nature of trails; protection for participants; length of the trail; its goals or benchmarks; if volunteers are asked to participate in clinical studies in Africa (both observational studies and clinical trials,) I strongly suggest we do not say, “No.” While we underscore the need to reject illegal and unethical vaccine tests, we must say “Yes.” to legal and ethical ones. Our world needs hope for a vaccine that will do good for all of us for generations to come. Though we are still observing a lock down, every new week ushers in some arrays of hope for humanity, irrespective of where we reside.
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
Guy Djoken is Member of the Maryland Governor Commission on African Affairs
Chairman of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO Clubs, Centers & Associations
Lifelong Human & Civil Rights Activists
A few Links on Guy Djoken work: