Europe

Coronavirus: France racism row over doctors' Africa testing comments

A woman wears a mask in Alexandra, South Africa. Image copyright Gallo Images
Image caption So far, Africa has been the continent least affected by the virus, but cases are increasing

Two French doctors have been accused of racism after a TV debate in which one suggested trials in Africa to see if a tuberculosis vaccine would prove effective against coronavirus.

During the debate on TV channel LCI, Camille Locht, head of research at the Inserm health research group, was talking about a trial in Europe and Australia.

Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin hospital in Paris, then says: “If I can be provocative, shouldn't we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?”

“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.”

Dr Mira had earlier questioned whether the study would work as planned on healthcare workers in Europe and Australia because they had access to personal protective equipment to prevent them catching the virus.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Didier Drogba, pictured playing for Chelsea in 2014, was among those to voice concern

“You are right,” Dr Locht responded.

"We are in the process of thinking about a study in parallel in Africa," he said, referencing the existing trials in countries in other continents.

What has the reaction been?

The comments received an angry response on social media, including from former footballers Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o.

“I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racist words,” Drogba tweeted.

“Do not take African people as human guinea pigs! It’s absolutely disgusting,” he added.

Eto'o called the doctors "murderers".

But Inserm said in a statement that the video was “the subject of erroneous interpretations”.

“Clinical trials to test the efficacy of the BCG vaccine against Covid-19 are... about to be launched in European countries and in Australia,” it said.

“If there is indeed a reflection around a deployment in Africa, it would be done in parallel with these. Africa must not be forgotten or excluded from research because the pandemic is global."

On Friday Dr Mira apologised for his comments, saying in a statement released by his employer: "I want to present all my apologies to those who were hurt, shocked and felt insulted by the remarks that I clumsily expressed on LCI this week."

BCG is a vaccination mostly given to babies in countries where tuberculosis is common.

One recent study - which has not yet been peer-reviewed - suggested that countries where BCG is administered reported fewer deaths related to Covid-19.

What's the coronavirus situation in Africa?

So far, Africa has been the continent least affected by the virus, but confirmed cases - and deaths - are increasing.

South Africa has the most confirmed cases - 1,462 - but just five confirmed deaths.

There have been 7,064 confirmed cases across the continent and 290 confirmed deaths, although there are fears the true number could be much higher.

Italy has the highest death toll in the world, with about 14,000 deaths.

Clarification: This story has been amended to make it clear that Dr Locht was also referring to trials in Europe and Australia.