The long-planned meeting by African and American leaders could not have come at a better time. While there are many things on the plate, there is one issue that should form the centre of the agenda. That issue is Ebola, and more so, its treatment.
Only a few days ago, one of UK’s leading health practitioners sensationally claimed that the West has not invested in an effective Ebola treatment because it seems to only affect the African population. The ebolavirus has been with us since 1976 but has seemed to have a penchant for the African gene. It has ravaged the Congo, Sudan, Uganda and is now killing thousands in West Africa. For nearly forty years, the official position has been that there is no drug, and the only solution is to quarantine the affected and watch them die. But this has changed. In one sweep, it is affecting Europeans and Americans, forcing their governments to do something about it. Even more so, it is forcing their entire societies to rethink their views on Ebola as an ‘African virus.’
The FDA quickly gave approval for compassionate use of the ‘super secret serum’, and Western media has quickly romanticised the story. The serum was flown from the US to West Africa and stored in subzero temperatures awaiting informed consent from the patients. The first patient, Dr. Kent Brantly, approved it for Nancy Writebol, then his condition got worse and he was given the first serum. The drug was only thawed and administered to those two patients and none other, not because it is a trial drug or that they were the most critical, but because they are American.
The truth is that the American pharmaceutical sector is a mean, profit-driven industry. It will never invest in a treatment that does not promise billions of dollars in profits. This cannot be said of Ebola because they already had an experimental drug in the works. It means someone somewhere saw money in the future of the virus. They never tested it on people despite there being thousands of deaths happening in Africa. Only until Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol got infected were human trials approved, not because they would surely die, but because they had the right passport.
The justification by the West is that Africans are suspicious of Western drug experiments. This view is not entirely unfounded as Big Pharma has a history of forced medical experimentation and clinical trials without informed consent. A good case in point is the Meningitis testing in Nigeria in the 1990s by Pfizer. The clinical trials resulted in deaths, blindness, deafness and brain damage among the young subjects. In 1994, the US government through the Centre for Diseases Control (CDC) carried out HIV/AIDS testing in Zimbabwe. The problem, again, was information and informed consent. The history of colonialism also hides many such instances of unethical experimentation, a good example being the sterilisation experiments in Namibia that started as early as 1900.
But one would think they would learn from past mistakes. The literacy levels are rising quickly in Africa, and the uptake of modern medicine on the continent is promising, even from a financial perspective. As Western reports have made it perfectly clear, it was an experimental drug that was only used as a measure of last resort. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been adamant that untested drugs cannot be used in the middle of an outbreak. Yet they have been used to save people lucky enough to be American. It is time for African governments to invest in drug research but that will not save the thousands currently being killed by the Ebolavirus. But what of those currently infected?
The moral responsibility that has prevented the West from investing in proper human trials during the outbreak has been suspended because the epidemic demographic is shifting. Their moral responsibility as rich nations would have been a small excuse if they had not flown secret serums just to treat their citizens. But they did, because the lives of a thousand Africans have not been worth that hope of a treatment. It is a shame and abomination. It is an insult to imply that there have been no Africans among those who are infected who can give sufficient informed consent to qualify for clinical trials.
Clinical trials for any drug are complex and tedious. They need a large enough sample size to determine the effects of the drug including side effects and synergistic effects. The successful treatment of two patients is too small for a large scale use, and the study was ad hoc. Yet it is the only hope of an immediate solution for the thousands dying in West Africa. If the rules can be suspended for members of one nationality, then the value of life needs to be respected for anyone else. What has happened here is a shame, and the African Big Men in Washington should tell Obama as much. They should get back home and make it easy for their citizens to access the experimental drug by finding the balance between ethical experimentation and the need to guard life.
But like trained dogs visiting a new home, they will not speak up about this slight. They will not do anything until it’s too late. It is already too late. They will not claim that we solve this epidemic that has the potential to be to Africa what the bubonic plague was to Europe. Instead, all those Big Men and Women there will only seek to fatten their pockets and those of their cronies. This is the African story, a story of avarice before life.