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French doctor apologizes for comments on testing a COVID-19 vaccine in Africa, prompting outrage on social media

‘Shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care, a little bit like we did in certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes?’ Dr. Jean-Paul Mira said.
Image: A Soldier and a member of the South African police service search a house
Authorities search a house while enforcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown, aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus in Eldorado Park, South Africa, on March 30, 2020.Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

A French doctor apologized after suggesting that Africa should become a testing ground for a COVID-19 vaccine, remarks that sparked public outcry on social media.

Jean-Paul Mira, head of the intensive care unit at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, made the comments in an interview that aired last week on the French television channel LCI with Camille Locht, the research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, Inserm.

“If I could be provocative, shouldn’t we do this study in Africa where there are no masks, treatment, or intensive care, a little bit like we did in certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes?” Mira asked.

“We tried things on prostitutes because they are highly exposed and do not protect themselves.”

Locht responded in agreement: “You are right. We are thinking of a parallel study in Africa to use this same kind of approach with the BCG placebos,” referring to the tuberculosis vaccination that Inserm said appeared to protect children against infections, particularly respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

Their comments triggered a deluge of outrage on social media, including from several leading soccer players in Africa.

“Welcome to the West, where white people believe themselves to be so superior that racism and debility become commonplace,” Senegal striker Demba Ba said on Twitter.

“Africa isn’t a testing lab,” Ivory Coast soccer star Didier Drogba tweeted. “I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racist words.”

Inserm, Locht’s employer, told NBC News that the doctor understood “the emotion aroused” by the video exchange. “The conditions in which this interview was conducted did not allow him to react properly,” said Inserm’s Director of Press Priscille Riviere. “He apologizes for this.”

On Friday, Mira apologized in a statement published by his employer, Assistance publique – Hôpitaux de Paris.

“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,” he said.

Today, there are 10,268 confirmed cases and 491 deaths in Africa, the continent least affected by COVID-19. France alone has 74,390 confirmed cases and 8,911 deaths related to coronavirus.