Though Clinical Trials and Medical Experimentations Have Improved, Calls to Test Coronavirus Vaccine in Africa Rekindles Their Racist Past


By Washington Osiro

THOSE LAMBASTING FRENCH DOCTOR Jean-Paul Mira about his callous and racist remarks regarding the clinical trials currently being conducted in Europe and Australia are either ignorant of the history of medical experimentation or are being disingenuous in their outrage. 

Dr. Mira offered the boneheaded view that the trials being conducted to prove the safety and efficacy of the BCG tuberculosis vaccine should be done in Africa “…..where there are no masks, treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s done, by the way, for certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes.” The Frenchman said more, but the salient takeaway from the head of ICU at Paris’ Cochin Hospital was the racism, bigotry, and arguably, violation of the Hippocratic Oath those in his profession swear to uphold – all embodied in his comments.

There is nothing new about the low regard, if not outright dehumanization; some have towards Africa and Africans. Katherine Eban’s “Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom” offers a series of anecdotes about the phenomenon that border on criminal. Asked what a drug manufacturer in Hyderabad did with batches of contaminated and unsterile chemotherapy drugs gemcitabine, an official from the company offered that they “send it to Africa.”Likewise, a medical director at Ranbaxy, another drug manufacturer, wondered why the FDA inspector (Peter Baker) “cared” about the poor-quality AIDs drugs bound for Africa since “it’s just blacks dying.

Similarly, Harriet Washington’s book “Medical Apartheid: A Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present,” is a sobering read on early interactions between black Americans and Western medical researchers. The book details the racist pseudoscience that resulted in those interactions: slaves and African Americans being used for medical experiments conducted without their knowledge. The statue of a subject in the book James Marion Sims was removed from New York’s Central Park because the surgeon experimented on unanesthetized women slaves.

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” conducted between 1935 and 1972 is yet another example of the illegal and unethical experimentation on unsuspecting African Americans – this one by the US Government in conjunction with the historically-black college (HBC) Tuskegee University in Alabama.

So while the inhumanity of Dr. Mira’s comment has a long and “rich” history or not uncommon or unusual in the field of drug and medical device development, I also know that the design and development of either – using animals and human subjects – has come a long way since the dark days described by Harriet Washington. It is against this background that I view the decision by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to “take part in testing of any future vaccine against the coronavirus.”

Dr. Paul Mira ought to know that it is both unethical and illegal to perform experiments (on animals AND human subjects) without observing proper protocols, including informed consent when testing on the latter. After all, it was fellow Frenchman Claude Bernard who offered what Ms. Washington describes as the “definitive feature” of scientific experimentation in the book “An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine”:

An “observation induced with the object of control,” i.e., induced change under strictly controlled conditions, changes whose outcomes are reviewed by peers before being rolled out to the public. 

Even in emergencies such as the on-going pandemic, there are rules in place to speed up the process while maintaining compliance, proving the efficacy of the product, and protecting the safety of the participants. Abbott Labs’ ID NOW COVID-19 tester was brought to market under the FDA’s “Emergency Use Authorization” (EUA) rules in record time. The approved equipment which targets the coronavirus gene is based on an existing/approved design – Abbott’s ID NOW platform – described by the company as “the leading molecular point-of-care platform for Influenza A&B, Strep A, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) testing.” That the platform is already on the market minimized the scope of testing needed to secure FDA approval while assuring its safety and efficacy.

At a minimum, and given medical science’s well-documented history of racism and unethical behavior towards minorities, the national and global organization/s that oversee Dr. Jean-Paul Mira’s profession should be categorical and public in their rebuke of the man’s comments. It is also this dark history that should compel the government of the DRC to keep an eagle eye over the testing of the coronavirus vaccine that is set to happen in the country – ON its citizens. 

People SHOULD rebuke Dr. Mira’s racist drible. However, they should also acknowledge the strides the field (of drug & medical device development and related experimentation) HAS made and CONTINUES to make in remediating its ugly past while being more inclusive and ethical when it develops therapies meant to improve the lives of ALL humans – regardless of race or class.