The Bitter Secret of Foreign Medical Centers in Africa

G. Ahiave

Laboratory induced pandemics and biological warfare agents have gained attention in recent years. By the late 1990s, few security experts became concerned about the nature of medical research and experimental treatments in Africa. It is important to point out that the proliferation of shadow medical research centers and outsourced pandemics have increased the exposure of African societies and will make security more difficult, in several ways. First, ethical considerations in clinical and public health research on infectious and communicable diseases become critical. Precisely how important is this issue? The politics of conducting medical experimentation and the ethics of research extends beyond traditional concerns to include issues within the domains of bioethics and public health ethics. Secondly, issues around data confidentiality and privacy are under greater focus than ever before as ubiquitous inequalities in critical corporate data and personal information expose to new security threats.

Finally, like in any other knowledge medical research is about power relations. Sole and pervasive domination of big data by external agents, further exacerbates existing vulnerabilities. The judicious issue then becomes how to problematize the task of providing adequate infrastructural and psychological preparation for African societies so as to prevent inappropriate and disruptive weaponized pandemics.Throughout history many in developing countries were subjected to countless cruel and inhuman medical studies and experiments. There are still shadowy medical research teams supported by more powerful and more resourced foreign governments in several African locations. These include, among others, the US Naval Medical Research Teams. Most African governments are completely unaware of the exact number, locations and modus operandi of these centers. There may be official notifications and agreements here and there.

In reality, however, national and local authorities may get glimpses of the truth, but for the most part, the secrets remain hidden. It is always the case that maintaining secrets often requires active deception. At another level the widespread but discreet experimentation might have noble objectives but transparency and accountability are essential virtues in making it valuable and harmless. Conspiracy theories aside it is common knowledge that medical research firms have the propensity to manipulate DNAs and poison citizens of many countries with impunity. Historically governments and their powerful agencies have always had a fatal attraction to a variety of deadly bioweapons. Government and military fascination (and machinations) with biological weapons dates back, if not much earlier, at least to the Crusades. Conversely, despite the serious lack of any hard evidence it is not difficult to argue, as many have speculated already, that they are open to abuse, which then becomes a security issue, particularly because the precise extent to which their operations are governed is still unknown.

Before we make up our mind on the identity of the problem, let’s look at some points. In the African context oversight of external medical experiments requires a great deal of knowledge and expertise. High level medical research also competes for scarce resources with many other public sector goals. Or else, as a relatively new segment of focus it will tend to lose out in the battle for national or continental attention and resources if it is not given a strong emphasis both at the policy and the implementation levels. This is crucial because it will have tremendous policy implications as there is going to be a shift in national as well as regional policy trends away from narrow military and political projects towards budget and policy support to the extreme importance for public health sector planning and budgeting systems in African countries. Compounding this is the daunting task of channeling resources to fight external medical threats and deal with its consequences effectively and efficiently.

One primary challenge facing Africa’s struggle against this external threat is a health sector that is simply ill equipped to shoulder the weighty burden of doing high-end research and critical oversight on externally driven experiments. While this is the case the real truth is being obscured: shadow laboratories can have fatal outcomes. There is no minimum understanding on genetically weaponized diseases. The level of impunity would be harmful such as people being used as agents in laboratories causing several disabilities, making genetics vulnerable to enemy attacks. There is the recurring possibility that many African genetic specifications, compounds and all their hereditary along an arsenal of components for lethal biological weapons are controlled by foreign forces. They can also be handed over to other external players, including non-state actors. It is worth noting that even under an effective continental attention Africa might still be unenthusiastic about developing a particular strategy; even if all governments had agreed on, it would have had a hard slog in its follow up. This is an issue that no government in Africa can successfully deal with by itself. It requires unanimity and synergy.

The whole process is insidious, since the effects are felt only over the long-term, as doing nothing, today translates into destructive results a generation later. Hence who controls and manages these research centers and their outcomes is important. It is thus less about research and more about the process and Access Control Mechanism. A more serious look at the issues gives a few pointers on the emerging socio-economic impact of shadow medical research centers and the need for more rigorous research and vigilance. Such studies would aim at producing policies and measures against externally motivated and controlled research centers, the particular issues of transparency and morality as well as abatement of social and economic effects. There is, however, little data and little work has been done in this area so far. Secondly, the lead-time between the negative impact of uncontrolled research and the onset of their devastating impact means that no African country has yet experienced the full implications of the threat and lacks clear cut prognosis on its wider impacts.

Thus, a detailed analysis of the multi-faceted effects of external medical research labs in Africa over a long period of time at both macro and micro levels is important, not least for Africa’s regional organizations, which will have to support African countries in getting through the crisis and developing response mechanisms.The indications are such that the spillover from external medical research might be emerging as a number one threat to human security in Africa. Its implications in terms of impoverishment, food security, the hollowing out of state capacities to deliver services, and its erosion of the integrity of security institutions and armies, and threaten to make the epidemic a threat to national security as well. To what extent are African countries cognizant of this? What are they exactly doing? Are they regarding it solely as a health issue or are they tackling its structural ramifications? Are African leaders prepared to brand foreign medical centers as critical security matters than mere public policy issues? The focus of future research would be to clearly identify the challenges posed by externally induced pandemics to regional peace and security and the governance of individual countries.

Key issues include:

ü Management and collection of data on the current status of externally driven medical research in Africa and the multifaceted impacts should be given a very high priority.

ü Strengthening coordination and information sharing within countries and sub-regions: Coordination must be strengthened within countries, including government led programs, and especially with NGOs, civil society, and faith based groups.

ü It might become difficult for African countries to overcome the challenge on a national level only. Rather, they should work together to develop a network that is fundamentally regional to discuss best practices and policies and serve as a coordinating instrument between countries.

ü A continental watchdog on medical research is critical. The AU should be able to adopt a separate Protocol and a strategy that would have given it verification and inspection provisions.

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