Anti-vaccine protesters in South Africa are voicing their concerns over the human trials for a COVID-19 vaccine that began in the country at the end of June. The University of Witwatersrand (Wits) and Oxford University have partnered to launch a clinical trial for a potential coronavirus vaccine called ChAdOx1 nCOV-19. The trial will include 2,000 voluntary participants, including 50 people who are HIV positive. Trials of the same drug are also taking place in Brazil and the United Kingdom.
Officials have claimed South Africa was chosen as the site of the clinical trial so that the country will not be left without an affordable vaccine as cases skyrocket locally. Shabir Madhi, a Wits vaccinology professor, has described the vaccine as a “landmark moment.”
However, around 50 South African demonstrators protested at the Wits in Johannesburg to express their disapproval of the vaccine trials. The protesters said did not want African people to serve as guinea pigs and felt the trial would result in testing drugs on people who don’t fully understand the associated risks. Demonstrators also burned their masks in front of the university. One sign held by a protester read: “We are not guinea pigs.”
Tebogo Leoale, a 29-year-old graphic designer, compared the current situation to the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s, saying, “I’m not happy at all! I mean this feels like the 1980s all over again when the AIDS pandemic just broke out in South Africa.”
Another protester named Walter Mashilo, also 29 years old, advocated against testing the vaccine in poor people, saying it should first be tested on members of the parliament and on ministers’ children. Other activists claimed researchers are “manipulating the vulnerable” by conducting tests on poor Africans and pushed against the narrative that presents Africa as a “dumping ground.”
He spoke to the crowd, saying, “We are clear, comrades, we don’t want this vaccine.”
To date, there have been 197,000 cases of coronavirus in South Africa, and more than 3,000 people have died.
Some local healers oppose the vaccine trials because they believe traditional medicinal practices can be used to treat the virus instead. “We are not going to follow a vaccine because we believe that our traditional medicine is not given a chance,” said 32-year old Sellwane Mokatsi, a member of the traditional healers’ organization.
Shabir Madhi said those who will participate in the study received information about the trial and the possible risks before taking part. In addition, potential participants had to score 80 percent on a questionnaire about the trial before joining.
Experts say an anti-vaccine sentiment is becoming increasingly common across the African continent.