The media has been awash with conspiracy theories on the vaccines that have been or are being rolled out to control Covid-19. In Africa a huge fraction of the population might hesitate, or even refuse entirely, to get vaccinated because of these theories. Whereas this phenomenon, generally referred to as vaccine hesitancy, is common across the globe, it takes a new dimension in Africa.
There have been instances in the past where new vaccines have been tested in Africa first for reasons that may be considered racist; indeed some Western medical researchers have been quoted allegedly suggesting that Africa is the ideal testing ground for new vaccines. Many Africans think this has reduced them to guinea pigs.
The labelling of some of the drugs has stoked the fires of conspiracy theories. Concerned about this I wrote to Gilead, one of the biggest drugs makers in the world, to seek clarity. Below is my enquiry:
“I have often been asked by my readers why some of your drugs are for distribution in some parts of the world and not in others. It seems there are drugs such as Remdesivir which are explicitly written ‘Not for distribution in US, Canada, or EU.’ Cipremi also has on its label: ‘For use in below countries Only’ and goes on to list only African countries.
I must say this has spawned conspiracy theories that may lead to the rejection of your drugs. In the era Covid-19 many Africans may reject the roll out of vaccinations because they are wary of drugs that are exclusively made for them. Known conspiracy theories have convinced a huge number of Africans that some Western drugs are made to kill or ‘neuter’ Africans as a way of population control.
I would be very happy if you would please explain to me and, therefore, my readers, why some of your drugs are not distributed universally.”
Below is their response:
“Access to Gilead drugs and patient safety are of utmost importance to us. To further expand access to remdesivir, Gilead has signed limited non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements with generic pharmaceutical manufacturers to manufacture remdesivir for distribution in 127 countries, including many countries in Africa.
To help ensure these approved medicines reach the intended patients, our licensees sometimes add distribution restrictions to labels so that drugs aren’t diverted to other countries and to help guarantee patients’ confidence in the drugs they’re receiving.”
At first I took this with a pinch of salt, but that was until I experienced the politics of drugs playing out this week. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic a new phenomenon called “vaccine nationalism” has emerged. This is where rich countries buy, or have bought, in advance millions of doses of the available vaccines leaving poor countries with no access to their only hope of saving their populations.
On Tuesday this week South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogues that he was “deeply concerned” about vaccine nationalism.
“The rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses of vaccines from the manufacturers and developers of these vaccines. And some countries went even beyond and acquired up to four times what their populations need, and that was aimed at hoarding the vaccines. This is being done to the exclusion of other countries in the world that most need this.”
Now the Gilead response makes sense. If drug manufacturers put all drugs on the open market poor countries would not have any chance accessing them.
And, it should bring comfort to doubting Thomases that all countries have strict rules on the distribution of drugs hence there’s little chance harmful drugs could be distributed in any country.