Africa should want to be in more, not fewer, vaccine trials: top scientists

We will achieve vaccine equity by having vaccines trials on our own soil, say Matshidiso Moeti and other African scientists.
We will achieve vaccine equity by having vaccines trials on our own soil, say Matshidiso Moeti and other African scientists.
Image: Twitter

Africans should be clamouring to be part of vaccine trials so we have equal access, rather than saying we’re being used as guinea pigs, say top African scientists.

They said that only 2% of clinical trials happen in Africa, yet the continent has 17% of the world’s population and thus misses out on early rollout of life-saving preventions.

In a webinar moderated by media expert Tsepiso Makwetla and hosted by the World Health Organisation, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said participation in trials would prevent a repetition of Africa being last to benefit from scientific developments.

“This disease will be circulating until there is a vaccine. I commend South Africa for participating, and we want to encourage other African member states to join. When we finally have an effective vaccine, equity must be a central focus because, too often, Africa is left at the back of the queue,” she said.

Also, African countries should already be preparing for vaccine rollout, despite the time lapse between development and rollout.

African countries should already be communicating clearly with communities to dispel the "guinea pig" myth, along with "mobilising financial resources, strengthening local manufacturing, and building workforce skills and knowledge".

Prof Shabir Madhi of Wits University heads the Covid-19 vaccine trial in South Africa.
Prof Shabir Madhi of Wits University heads the Covid-19 vaccine trial in South Africa.
Image: Wits University

Wits University's Prof Shabir Madhi, who is heading the trials in South Africa, said it was important to note that SA had approached the University of Oxford, and not the other way around, to be part of the trials, which are also taking place in the UK, Brazil and the US.

He said there was “sometimes a lag of between five and 20 years” between vaccine rollout in high-income countries versus rollout in their lower-income counterparts, and that part of the problem is a lack of information in the African context. For this reason, trials on African soil stand the continent in good stead.

“It is critical that we understand work in the African context. If anything, the criticism should not be about us being guinea pigs but about the fact that less than 2% of vaccine research is done in Africa, yet we have 17% of the world’s population. Not enough studies are being done here,” said Madhi.

Prof Pontiano Kaleebu, director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), said vaccine development requires overcoming every legal, social, ethical and financial barrier, but that in his work with other vaccines (for example in fighting Ebola and Rift Valley Fever), he has “learnt that as long as you communicate well and keep the public informed, they understand that their country’s scientists are sticking to the highest international and ethical standards.”

He said he was glad the guinea pig issue was being referred to as a “rumour” because that is exactly what it is.

“I want to assure our African brothers and sisters that we provide the best to our population, and that nobody has any interest in using Africans as guinea pigs,” he said.

On the contrary, he said, it helps with equity when it comes to vaccine rollout, and every participant comes in on a voluntary basis and “can withdraw at any time from it”.

He added of the global community, “Nobody is safe in this world unless every country is safe.”

Moeti said buy-in from people is achieved through clear communication, so that rumours of this nature are not allowed to run riot.

“When communities understand that the systems are in place to make sure everything is properly regulated, they understand that our taking part in the trials is to our own advantage,” she said.

It is up to scientists to communicate that message effectively because “informing people accurately about the standards that are being applied is very important for vaccine research in Africa”.

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