The race to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus faces an uphill struggle in Africa, where a flood of online misinformation is feeding on historical mistrust of Western medical research.
False claims and anti-vaccine sentiment have swamped platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp across the region, warning Africans that characterises vaccine research as harmful or even part of a plot to kill black people.
So far the world’s poorest continent has recorded more than 48,000 coronavirus cases including 1,900 deaths, according to an AFP tally as of May 5, 2020.
The toll lags behind Europe and elsewhere but the true figure may be considerably higher, given the lack of access to testing.
A weak healthcare system, a strong reliance on herbal remedies and a history of controversial drug trials have helped spread misinformation like bushfire on social media.
Rumours that coronavirus vaccines could be tested in Africa have sparked panic and triggered memories of mass sterilisation conspiracies, fake HIV cures and other scandals involving Western doctors effectively using black people as guinea pigs.
“There is a long history of mistrust of vaccines in Africa,” Keymanthri Moodley, director of the Centre for Medical Ethics and Law at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, told AFP.
This explains why comments made by two leading French researchers on a TV programme last month had an outsized impact south of the Sahara, Moodley said.
Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at the Cochin hospital in Paris, suggested testing a vaccine in Africa “where there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care, rather as was done with certain studies on AIDS, where things are tested on prostitutes because it’s known that they are highly exposed”.
Vaccines are routinely tested in Africa and scientists point out that testing in a particular location can often provide key insights into how a drug works there.
The pair later apologised for any offence — but this did little to calm allegations that Africans were being manipulated or even used as guinea pigs.
‘RACIST AND CONDESCENDING’
“It is as if we were back in the colonial era,” Kenya’s former justice minister Martha Karua told AFP. “I personally think it is racist and condescending”.
The controversy sparked a wave of misinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment online, including dozens of claims in several languages debunked by AFP Fact Check.
In Senegal, a rumour that seven children died after being given a COVID-19 vaccine was shared thousands of times in Facebook posts in English and French.
In a video showing a crowd gathered in the street near a parked police car, a female voice-over presents the footage like a news report, explaining that the children “dropped dead” after receiving the vaccine.
An investigation by AFP Fact Check found that the panic in the capital Dakar was triggered when locals mistook a door-to-door cosmetics salesman for a health ministry worker. The government said that no children died from a coronavirus vaccine.
In another viral post shared around Africa, an illustration shows a black woman brandishing a machete to a white doctor holding an injection, while pictures circulating in English and French show a syringe with text reading “No vaccine test in Africa”.
Elsewhere in West Africa, a Facebook post shared thousands of times warned against a “Bill Gates” vaccine, after the billionaire Microsoft founder pledged $250 million to the COVID-19 response.
The message circulating in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin falsely claimed that French doctor Didier Raoult — who promotes malaria drug chloroquine as a possible treatment — said that the vaccine “contains poison” and that “the West wants to destroy Africa”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has flagged earning public trust as an urgent health challenge and warned of an “infodemic” — a deluge of information, including misinformation on social media — that is hampering the COVID-19 response.
The body says concerns that Africa could be abused as a vaccine testing ground are unfounded.
“I would really reassure people that the clinical trials currently ongoing on the continent respect international standards and follow the same protocol as other developed countries,” Richard Mihigo, Programme Area Manager for Immunisation and Vaccine Development for the World Health Organization in Africa, told AFP.