The task of introducing a vaccine for the coronavirus faces an uphill struggle in Africa, where a flood of online misinformation is feeding on mistrust of Western medical research.
Across the continent, Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms have been swamped by messaging that characterises vaccine research as harmful or even part of a plot to kill black people.
The world’s poorest continent — and the most vulnerable to the disease, given its poor health infrastructure — Africa has recorded more than 48,000 COVID-19 cases, 1,900 of which have been fatal, according to an AFP tally as of Wednesday.
The toll is below that of other continents, although the true figure may be considerably higher, given the lack of access to testing.
The absence of a cure has sparked a flurry of claims for purported remedies.
They range from consuming onions and ginger and drinking one’s urine to a herbal formula touted by Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina — assertions that fly in the face of stern scientific warnings.
But it is the quest for a vaccine that has sparked particularly toxic disinformation, an investigation by AFP Fact Check has found.
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 a Dakar street near a parked police car, a female voiceover presents the footage like a news report, explaining that the children “dropped dead” after receiving the vaccine.
AFP found that the disturbance was in fact triggered when locals mistook a door-to-door cosmetics salesman for a health ministry worker. The government said that no children have died from a coronavirus vaccine.
Another post shared on Facebook and Twitter refers to a US government experiment that started in the 1930s and saw health workers withhold treatment from black men with syphilis to study the disease.
In 40 years, 28 of the test subjects died of syphilis and another 100 died of complications.
“US government offers free healthcare to southern rural blacks. Intentionally injects them with syphilis. Still want a corona vaccine?” the post reads, next to a photograph of black men in flat caps and dungarees waiting to be seen by white health workers.
And in another post widely shared around Africa, an illustration shows a black woman brandishing a machete towards a white doctor performing an injection.
Long history of mistrust
Experts point to entrenched suspicions in Africa that the continent’s role is to be a test bench for novel drugs.
“There is a long history of mistrust,” Keymanthri Moodley, director of the Centre for Medical Ethics and Law at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, told AFP.
This explains why comments made last month by two French researchers had an outsized impact south of the Sahara, Moodley said.
On television, the pair discussed the benefits of holding drug trials in Africa.
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.
“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 storm unleashed a tsunami of misinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment online, including dozens of claims in several languages debunked by AFP Fact Check.
A Facebook post shared thousands of times warned against a “Bill Gates” vaccine, after the billionaire pledged $250 million to fight COVID-19.
The message, circulated widely in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin, falsely claimed that French doctor Didier Raoult — a maverick who promotes the malaria drug chloroquine as a possible treatment — said 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, the WHO’s Programme Area Manager for Immunisation and Vaccine Development in Africa, told AFP.
There are more than 100 candidate vaccines in development around the world, with eight already being tested in human trials.
One such drug developed by Britain’s Oxford University was hit by misinformation last month when a widely-shared South African news article debunked by AFP claimed that a woman taking part in trials died shortly after being given the vaccine.
The volunteer, Elisa Granato, later confirmed she was “absolutely fine”.
‘Recognise the concerns’
Sara Cooper, senior scientist at the South African Medical Research Council, said misinformation had to be tackled by targeting underlying sentiment.
“Rather than dismissing these as ‘false rumours’ or ‘erroneous beliefs’, these concerns should be heard and recognised,” she told AFP.
She said ethical research led by African scientists rather than by “top-down” foreign programmes could “go a long way in rebuilding community trust and reducing resistance”.
In Nigeria, pharma giant Pfizer was sued when 11 children died in a meningitis trial in 1996. The families’ lawyer claimed they could not have given proper consent as they did not speak English.
Despite the problems of perception, the WHO’s Mihigo was optimistic that when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, it would be widely accepted in Africa.
“Communities know very well that when immunisation is not given, outbreaks do occur. We’ve seen that with measles,” he said.
“People turn up overwhelmingly to vaccination campaigns. They know the benefits. They’ve seen people dying.”