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The long shadow of Covid-19 myths

Like in many countries, misinformation about Covid-19 has circulated widely in Morocco during the pandemic. Much of it came from the US and Europe.

By Jacob Kushner and Kang-Chun Cheng in Morocco 28th March 2023

In early April 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was spreading across the world, two French doctors suggested on live television that scientists test the tuberculosis vaccine on Africans to see if it might work against Covid-19.

“If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?” said Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin hospital in Paris. “A bit like as it is done elsewhere for some studies on Aids. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”

The other doctor, Camille Locht, head of research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, agreed: “You are right. We are actually thinking about leading a study in parallel in Africa.”

The video spread quickly and the two doctors were accused of racism, with Africans across the continent insisting “we are not lab rats”. African celebrities were quick to condemn the doctors’ statements, including the Ivorian football star Didier Drogba and Cameroonian soccer star Samuel Eto’o.

The Moroccan Lawyers Club is now suing the doctors for discrimination in a Paris court. They say the doctors’ comments may have endangered African lives by dissuading them from taking lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines. Although the reasons for vaccine hesitancy in parts of Africa are complex, and in some cases rooted in a history of unethical medical research in the region, there is growing evidence that misinformation played an important role in people’s decisions to get the immunisation or not.

A 2021 study by the Africa CDC found that 45% of respondents in 15 African countries believed rumours that Africans were being used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials. The survey also found that 42% believed false rumours that poor people were being singled out for vaccine trials and a third incorrectly believed vaccine trials had already caused African children to die.

Two days after the original exchange, Mira issued a statement apologising “to those who were hurt, shocked and felt insulted by the remarks that I clumsily expressed”. Locht issued no apology, and his employer defended him by insisting he was “the subject of misinterpretations on social networks”.

“I have never dissuaded any Africans, nor any other person in the world from taking Covid-19 vaccines,” Locht told the BBC, adding that studies were underway in some Western countries to see if the tuberculosis vaccine could be effective against Covid-19. “I simply felt that we should not exclude the African continent from the potential benefits” of such research, he says. Mira declined to comment.

The dangers of the unvaccinated 

At the end of January 2023, the World Health Organization said it continued to regard the Covid-19 pandemic as a public health emergency of international concern as new variants continue to arise and cause fresh waves of disease. Scientists warn that vaccine hesitancy in developing nations such as in Africa could prolong the pandemic as unvaccinated people may be more likely to incubate new Covid-19 variants.

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