The WHO Speaks Out About Rumors of Racism in Vaccine Trial
Crowds recently gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa in protest
At the end of June, the University of Oxford announced it would begin a new trial of its Covid-19 vaccine in South Africa. It would be the first Covid-19 vaccine trial on the African continent. The choice of location sparked a lot of questions among locals about how the country got involved and how people would be chosen to participate. It also ignited fears of racism.
The University of Oxford stated that the vaccine had been developed at Oxford and was already being tested in the U.K. in a trial that had enrolled over 4,000 people and planned to recruit 10,000 more. The trial was a collaboration between the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and the Oxford Vaccine Group. Nevertheless, people raised concerns about racist Western companies using African people as “guinea pigs,” as protesters in Johannesburg recently alleged.
On Thursday, experts at a World Health Organization Africa virtual press conference addressed these concerns. Professor Shabir Madhi of Wits University, the principal investigator of the Oxford trial in South Africa, clarified the reasons why South Africa was involved in the study, saying it was not the University of Oxford’s intention to specifically start a trial in the country. “In fact, it was South Africans that approached the University of Oxford to determine whether they would be willing to include South Africa as part of the clinical development plan,” he said. He further stated that the trial was not funded by the University of Oxford but by the South Africa Medical Research Council and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
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The rising unease about the South African vaccine trial has roots in a long history of white racists experimenting on Black people. In the mid-1990s, for example, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer was found to have violated ethical guidelines in Nigeria by failing to inform study participants of the risks associated with…