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The African continent is not the world’s laboratory: a history

By BLC Editorial Team & Nii Ala Russell Adjei

On the 2nd of April, French Doctors Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht appeared on national television, with one suggesting a plan to test a new vaccine in Africa, where there are ‘no masks, no treatment, no intensive care, the same way experimental treatment for aids was done on prostitutes’.

Online biographies of the Doctors describe them as follows: 

Dr Camille Locht currently holds a position as Research Director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) and heads the Center for Infection and Immunity of Lille on the campus of the Institut Pasteur de Lille in France. He has authored more than 250 international publications, several dozens of patents and has obtained several research awards in France.

Dr Jean-Paul Mira was Assistant professor in Paris University Hospital from 1990-1994 and has been a Chair of the MICU of Cochin University Hospital since 2007. He is also President-elect of the French Society of Critical Care Medicine.

While it is shocking and horrifying that the pair see fit to propagate these ideas, testing drugs (and medical experimentation) either in African countries or on people of African descent, is sadly nothing new. There exists a long history of medical experimentation on Africans worldwide, an understanding of which can help us to place the sinister words of these doctors in the appropriate historical context. 

John Quier, Smallpox experiments, 1700s, Jamaica

John Quier, a British doctor working in rural Jamaica, freely experimented with smallpox inoculation in a population of 850 enslaved African people during the 1768 epidemic. Inoculation, which is a precursor to vaccine, involved inducing a light case of the disease in a healthy person in hopes of immunizing that person for life. Needless to say, his experimentation was not always successful.

This is not the only incident in the lesser-known history of medical experimentation on African-Caribbean people during slavery.

Shark Island Concentration Camp, 1905, Namibia

Between 1904-1907, German military forces committed genocide against indigenous people in what was then German Southwest Africa, present-day Namibia. They hoped to rid the colony of indigenous people so as to gain access to their land. They were prepared to do this by any means – through battle, starvation and thirst, forced labour, malnutrition, sexual violence, disease, and even through medical experiments.

In 1906, research was conducted by a doctor named Eugen Fischer on the skulls of dead prisoners. Another doctor, Dr Bofinger, conducted research on prisoners with the disease scurvy.  Captured and enslaved women were made to boil heads of their dead inmates and prepare them their remains for examinations by German universities.

Some of these experiments were known to have been conducted by German doctors who would go on to develop racist evolutionary theories.

The Tuskegee Trials, 1932 – 72, USA 

From 1932 to 1972 the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) physicians conducted the Tuskegee Trial to examine the ‘natural progress of untreated syphilis’ in African American men, diagnosed with syphilis, at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. 

The men were promised free medical examinations, free treatment for minor injuries, hot meals, rides to and from the hospital, and burial stipends to be paid to their surviving families should they pass away. They were never told the full extent of the experiment and were withheld from treatment of any kind for the 40 years they were observed.

Of the 600 Black men, 399 already had syphilis. By the end of this inhumane study, only 74 of the men remained. 28 are thought to have died from syphilis and a further 100 from related complications. Forty of the men’s wives had been infected, and an estimated 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.

The case of Ebb Cade, 1945, USA

In 1945, African-American Ebb Cade, a 53-year-old truck driver, was secretly injected with plutonium, the substance used to make nuclear bombs. After breaking several of his bones in an automobile accident, he was rushed to the emergency room. Unbeknownst to Ebb Cade, he was in the care of doctors that were also U.S. Atomic Agency employees. 

For six months, he was held in the hospital under the belief that they were treating his injuries. During that time, he was injected with more than 40 times the amount of plutonium an average person is exposed to in a lifetime. The doctors and researchers collected bone samples and extracted 15 teeth to monitor the effects of his exposure. Ebb Cade grew suspicious of his broken-bone treatments and escaped from the hospital. Unfortunately, Cade suffered from the brutal effects of intense radiation until he died from heart failure eight years later at the age of 61.

Henrietta Lacks, 1951, USA

In 1951 – nearly 100 years after the abolition of slavery –  Henrietta Lacks travelled to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland USA because she had cervical cancer. During her diagnosis and treatment her doctor, George Otto Gey, without her knowledge or consent, cultured her cells and used them for medical research. He created the cell line commonly referred to as HeLa or the HeLa immortal cell line. This cell line was used to find the vaccine for Polio, AIDS research, cancer research and after being put into mass production, it is still used for medical research to this day. 

The entire world is indebted to Henrietta Lacks – the research conducted on her cells has saved millions of lives, but her family has not been compensated in any way for her contribution even though pharmaceutical companies have made billions of dollars, as a result of the research they have done with her cells. 

Many believe this served as a precedent to reinforce the belief amongst western medical professionals that they have the right – and even the duty – to test or use people of colour for medical research.

Pfizer meningitis trials on Children, 1996, Kano Nigeria

When, in 1996, the Northern Nigerian state of Kano was hit with Africa’s worst ever meningitis epidemic, pharmaceutical company Pfizer gave one hundred children an experimental oral antibiotic called Trovan, while a further hundred received a more well-trusted drug, Ceftriaxone.

It soon became clear however that the antibiotics were administered without the full consent of the children’s parents, and when 11 children passed away as a result of the drugs, the families and state government took legal action. During legal proceedings, it emerged that many of the children who remained alive suffered brain damage, paralysis or slurred speech as a result of the experimentation.

Pfizer were, at the time, the world’s biggest research-based pharmaceutical company.

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What do globally accepted ethical principles and the law say about this?

The Declaration of Helsinki was originally released in 1964. It was supposed to be a set of ethical principles for the international medical community and essentially guidelines for the World Medical Association. However, as human rights evolved around the world the document became more specific. Although it is on its 7th revision, after the 3rd revision in 1989 the United States quit recognizing revisions and in 2006 announced they would no longer refer to the Helsinki Declaration. The American’s can thank George W. Bush’s administration for that one. To their credit, they did come up with the “Good Clinical Practice” in 2008, but obviously, it has allowed for fewer restrictions. Many European nations might still be a part of the Declaration of Helsinki, but they convince themselves that they are abiding by it by obtaining “consent”.

Consent is a word that can be controversial and is most often thought of simply as a term used for whether or not someone agrees to physical touch including intercourse. However, consent and its true definition go far beyond this use.

This is especially true when unfavourable power dynamics are at play. For decades a similar pattern has played out – you take an underprivileged community that has historically lacked access to advanced medicine. Perhaps due to literacy and language barriers – or other more sinister reasons, local people may not be aware that they are being approached to participate in research or a trial. In fact, whatever they are being offered may often be the only way they could afford to get any form of treatment. This means they may not have been able to provide consent because they had no idea of what was actually happening and, in some cases, the actual trial was conducted without them being informed in any capacity. The instances above are just a handful of the numerous cases throughout history, with several more reported in Cameroon, Uganda,  Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire and in other continents of the world (see further reading below).  

Valid concerns?

For years now rumours have circulated relating to Bill Gates, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other Western bodies’ intentions on the African continent. From Meningitis to AIDS to COVID-19 and more, a particularly prevalent view amongst some communities associates the Gates with sinister depopulation attempts.

And while it should be noted that there is no public evidence of foul play in this regard, videos such as that of the French doctors (paired with this long history of medical experimentation) have already contributed to the increase in distrust and scepticism towards Western medical practitioners, institutions or NGOs heading to the continent. 

The fact that these French doctors hold such high positions, have been awarded countless accolades and are as widely published as they are, and yet were confident enough to publicly express these ideas adds to the growing fear that ‘others’ could also be complicit in such plans on a wider scale. Many might now be wondering ‘were these French doctors simply spilling pre-existing trade secrets?’  

(A title from a New York Times article)

The ideas behind the use of Black people in experiments find their origins in western scientific racism. 

Take German philosopher and historian Christoph Meiners for example, who theorised that  Black people feel less pain than any other race and lacked in emotions. Meiners wrote that Black people had thick nerves and thus were not sensitive like the other races. He went as far as to say that the Negro has “no human, barely any animal, feeling.”

Or Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher who theorises that “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.” Or even Thomas Jefferson who once stated that ‘Blacks are inferior to whites in both body and mind.’

In an article for the New York Times, Journalist and Author Linda Villarosa explains:  ‘They believed that black people had large sex organs and small skulls — which translated to promiscuity and a lack of intelligence…These fallacies, presented as fact and legitimized in medical journals, bolstered society’s view that enslaved people were fit for little outside forced [physical] labor.’  

This has given birth to the idea that Africans/Black people the world throughout are – physically more resilient, less inclined to feel pain, less intellectually capable and less deserving of equal and just treatment in medical terms.

The impact of such biases and myths are far-reaching, as both news headlines and research from across the world show. 

(A handful of countless articles and research papers online showing the lasting impact of scientific racism)

Despite their Western and historic origins, in today’s world, these debunked views continue to be propagated by people of all backgrounds.

When, earlier this week a Nigerian student was told by a Chinese professor that ‘most Africans can be good athletes good singers and dancers, but to become well-skilled workers such as engineers it’d be impossibly hard’, we see attitudes that contribute to this idea of the African individual as possessing physical strength and prowess but having little else to offer.

And while the impact of simply stating such opinions is by no means as severe as what these French doctors are seen to casually discuss on camera, they are nonetheless still rooted in the same sordid history of scientific racism.

Fast-forward to today and back to the topic of vaccines and other forms of treatment. Do we know enough to say that vaccines to our nations should be stopped completely or to encourage our loved ones to remain unvaccinated? Perhaps not. But the history of medical experimentation and our people and communities does add a layer of understanding as to why so many of us have the reservations we do.

Prevention is better than cure

As of yet, there seems to have been no word on whether these particular Doctors will face a punishment of any kind or whether the global uproar around their words will lead to anything more than online outrage. 

As disheartening as this incident and what it represents may be to our community, the question now turns to what next? How can we insulate ourselves and our homelands – or better yet ensure that the spoils of global medical advancements reach our shores safely without confirming our greatest fears of a continuation of this ugly history?  

Might the answer lie in bolstering our own, internal ability to solve health crises in our nations and communities? 

Perhaps this could happen through increased incentives for young prospective African doctors to study, return home to practice and become leading voices in their respective specialisms – or supporting those who already have such aspirations.

Or through the supplementary introduction of traditional African medicines across more countries.

Take a trip to one of China’s numerous hospitals and it’d be hard not to notice the role that traditional Chinese medicine plays alongside Western medicine. 

Could lobbying for the elevation of African traditional medicines to a similar supplementary status be another way to close this ugly chapter and usher in a new, more balanced one?

Some of these potential solutions are already underway in several countries and have begun to have positive impacts on local communities. Perhaps through the global devastation, this pandemic has created, African nations will see the need to be more vigilant and protect citizens from outside threats – whether they come in the shape of viruses like COVID-19 or experimentation attempts such as those proposed by Dr Jean-Paul Mira and Dr Camille Locht.

The history detailed in this article seeks to prove that there is reason to take precautionary measures to ensure that Africa, her people and descendants cease to be treated as the laboratory and subjects of the world. 

And while we all hope and trust that medical ethics have since advanced,  building our own capacity to ‘save ourselves’ should trump total reliance on those who may have interests that run contrary to our development. 

What do you think?

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