Pfizer crimes in Nigeria fuel anti-vaccine campaign
United States pharmaceutical giant Pfizer performed illegal drug trials in Nigeria in 1996 leading to the deaths and disabilities of many children.
The memories of these crimes committed by this infamous US pharmaceutical company are still fresh in the minds of many in Nigeria and other parts of Africa amid an ongoing vaccination campaign to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trovan, a Pfizer drug tested children and intended to treat a deadly regional outbreak of meningitis, killed at least 11 children and left many more permanently disabled.
Pfizer neglected to acquire informed consent from the parents of the patients, who were, anyway, too stressed to make rational decisions. It was only in 2009 that Pfizer settled out-of-court and paid $75 million to the Kano State government and $175,000 to the parents of four of the children who had died during the outbreak and clinical trials.
In its legal defense, Pfizer argued that the children had been killed by the disease and not their drugs. Eventually the parties involved agreed to an out-of-court settlement that denied the world an opportunity to have the medical facts established before a court of law.
Still, the out-of-court deal has been dogged by controversy. According to WikiLeaks, this giant US drug maker may have blackmailed the head of Nigeria's Ministry of Justice into dropping a $6 billion criminal lawsuit.
A State Department cable dated April 20, 2009 and released by WikiLeaks, however, suggests that Pfizer's legal strategy was not simply to delay--it was also to blackmail.
Experience of Pfizer crimes
For Nigerians affected by the devastating drug trial, vaccine hesitancy is not only driven by conspiracy theories or mistrust but lived experience.
According to a report published by Unbias the News, the aftermath of the disastrous Pfizer’s drug trial in 1996 is linked to the current COVID-19 vaccination boycott in communities within Kano State in northern Nigeria. Here, vaccine hesitancy is not only driven by conspiracy theories or mistrust in science but lived experience.
Pfizer was in Kano with Trovan, expected to potentially treat meningitis, but not yet approved for that use or for treatment of children by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company decided the lax laws in Nigeria at that time would provide an opportunity for unethical trials. Pfizer administered a drug trial of Trovan and a second drug, Ceftriaxone, then a standard treatment for meningitis, to some 200 children. This anti-meningitis drug manufactured by Pfizer killed and disabled innocent children.
Pfizer has maintained that it obtained prior verbal consent from all parents for the experiment, a claim that was rejected by those affected.
Doubts over ethics of Pfizer and others
Many years later, the memory of the Trovan drug trial remains. The COVID-19 vaccine recalls doubts over the ethics of big pharmaceutical companies.
“I won’t advise, I won’t allow and I won’t tolerate seeing my son, myself or any of my relatives to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” says a mother whose son was six at the time of the illegal drug trials by Pfizer. She vows to discourage anyone she knows from taking the vaccine and inform them about the 1996 meningitis outbreak. “I will educate them on that. My son is now living in agony despite the so-called compensation…He is neither in school nor into business. He is living a miserable life.”
Expired COVID-19 vaccines
This Nigerian mother is not alone in her doubts. From Congo to Malawi and South Sudan, doses of the expired COVID-19 vaccines have been destroyed, a development that raises concerns for vaccine equity and the effectiveness of a global vaccination effort that requires mass participation to be effective.
Dr Samaila Suleiman, a lecturer of History at the Bayero University Kano, argues that skepticism over the COVID-19 vaccine can be traced to historical cynicism against the motives of Western imperial powers in Africa.
“It is important to also note that the COVID-19 vaccine skepticism is not peculiar to the uninformed members of the community. There are highly placed members of the elite and political class who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine, citing a Western conspiracy to decimate the African population,” he says.