The importance of undertaking clinical trials for a vaccine in Africa has dominated discussions at a webinar about COVID-19 and vaccine development on the continent. Concerns have previously been raised by members of the public about plans to conduct vaccine trials in Africa even though the continent has not been as severely affected by COVID-19 as Europe and America.

However, health experts advise that African participation in such studies is beneficial for the continent and its people.

Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University, Shabir Madhi, who is the technical leader of the first and only COVID-19 trial conducted in South Africa and the continent, says many life-saving vaccines have been introduced to low and middle-income countries five to 20 years after they were first available in high-income countries.

“If anything the criticism right now shouldn’t be about possibly using Africans as guinea pigs, we need to understand that less than 2.5% of all clinical trials that are done globally are done in Africa, which constitutes 17% of the world population. If anything, there aren’t enough clinical trials being done in Africa to understand how therapeutics including vaccines work on the African context because there’s very little financial incentive on the part of the industry to conduct these sorts of studies in Africa.”

Director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute, Professor Pontiano Kaleebu, says complaints about Africans being used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials are not unique to COVID-19. He says it was the same with HIV and Ebola vaccine trials.

“That concern is not surprising. That’s why we need to make sure we have processes to ensure that we follow the highest ethical legal standards. The processes we are talking about involving everyone will make sure that we are not just being used as guinea pigs but what we are doing is to conduct studies, to try vaccines that are being developed using the highest scientific standards and also conduct the trial in the highest ethical and legal standard.”

Countries urged to strengthen health systems

WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti called on countries to strengthen their health systems to prepare for the massive roll out of vaccines should the trial be successful.

“When we have an effective COVID-19 vaccine it will make sure that it takes into account if countries participated, the response of populations in Africa. We know also that when we have the vaccine it will have to be rolled out at unprecedented speed and scale. Equity must be a central focus of our efforts and too often African countries have ended up at the back of the queue for new technologies including vaccines. These lifesaving products must be made available to everyone not only those who can afford to pay.”

Professor Madhi says they will know by the end of this year if the vaccine is promising, but final results are only expected late next year.