As public suspicion about the Ebola vaccine trials continues in the country, the debate is heightening over the pros and cons, and future impacts of the vaccines on public health.
The most recent debate on the issue involved two Liberian medical doctors, Stephen Kennedy, Co-investigator of the Partnership for Research on Ebola Vaccine in Liberia (PREVAIL) and Vuyu Kanda Golakai, Dean of the A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicine, University of Liberia (UL).
The two medical doctors made their presentations on February 27 at the Stella Maris Polytechnic, during the Liberia Civil Society Organizations Ebola Response Task Force 3rd Dialogue forum on the theme, “Details of the Vaccine Trial and Its Impact on Public Health.”
The two doctors strongly differed with each other on the administration of the vaccines in principle, each defending his side why it is necessary to conduct the trial here in Liberia, and why it should not.
Representing the pros, Dr. Stephen B. Kennedy said he took the vaccine three weeks ago and he continues to be healthy.
He said Phases One and Two of the trial vaccine were tried in the United States, Canada and Switzerland, and Phase Three that requires testing in an Ebola-affected country came to Liberia, because it is an affected country.
Regarding the safety of the trial vaccine, Dr. Kennedy said it is 100 percent safe but it is associated with fever, weakness and pain in the body.
He failed to state what may happen in case of the death of a volunteer. However, he clarified that the vaccine trial in Liberia will come with historical recognition, royalty and many scholarships for Liberians, if successful.
He began with the criticism that the old folks in the medical field, including his former instructor, Dr. Golakai, had failed to deliver to the Liberian health system the needed deliverables, and therefore they, the younger generation, are now in the driver’s seat to bring to reality what their predecessors failed to achieve.
He encouraged people to believe in the trial vaccines, claiming that others have tried vaccines in their countries and Liberia benefitted from the results.
Dr. Kennedy, who received the highest number of questions and comments during the debate also failed to clearly state the impact of the trial vaccine on public health.
On the issue of sufficient public awareness about the trial vaccine, he said the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare conducted public awareness and that there is no reason for any Liberian to be suspicious of the process.
However, in early February at a press conference in Monrovia Dr. Kennedy admitted to the error that PREVAIL did not involve the media and civil society in the discussions surrounding the trial vaccine, which, according to him, created public suspicion.
On the other hand, tough and straight talking Dr. Golakai, who sides with the cons in the debate, criticized the decision to carry on the vaccine trials that he said was reached at the top and could not go through scientific research, procedures and debates.
Though he said he does not have qualms with the vaccine research as it is, Dr. Golakai contended that the trial of the vaccines is deceptive and that even U.S. citizens would not allow the trials to be conducted upon the orders of President Obama until scientists there had held sufficient discussions and assured the nation of its safety.
“The President of this country, the Legislature and the Judiciary have no right to allow clinical trial vaccines to be conducted without hearings that involve those who studied medicine in this country,” he charged.
He told the gathering that the decision about the vaccine trials was made at the government level and they as medical practitioners were forced to comply.
In addition to his concerns, Dr. Golakai stressed that informed consent and knowledge about the vaccine were taken for granted.
According to him, partners were supposed to have informed the public about what the trial entails, noting, “There was no social mobilization. Therefore, the lack of cooperation and growing suspicion we are receiving are because there was no awareness.”
Furthermore, said Dr. Golakai, if the vaccine trial is successful, Liberia stands not to benefit anything, but powerful countries, including the United States, will buy everything and keep them for emergency to sell to Liberia at a higher cost.
He notified the gathering that three vaccine trials had taken place in Liberia, but the country has gained nothing out of those trials and continues to buy the vaccines more expensively than they are bought in the United States.
Dr. Golakai moreover described as “unethical” the report about giving US$40 to each volunteer to take the trial vaccine. He argued that many Liberians are poor, adding, “If a Yanna boy making US$2.00 a week is given US$10.00 a day for instance, his action will no longer be voluntary, but will depend on the offer.”
The committee decided that the trial should be purely voluntary without money, but it has proven otherwise, thus bringing suspicion as to whether people are volunteering or not, Dr. Golakai said.
The timing of the virus and the vaccine creates doubt and suspicion, the Medical College dean further stated.
“We don’t know how Ebola got into this part of Africa. It has been in south and east Africa, about 4,000 miles away from Liberia. Did the bat fly with it here, or was it brought by the plane?” he wondered.
He indicated that there are countries patented for the virus in this world and patent rights are paid to the United States. These countries, he charged, have taken an organism created by God to be a property of man.
He said the virus may have been manipulated to give those with patent rights more power or the opportunity to make more money.
Liberia being in a state of Catch 22, Dr. Golakai declared, has no option since it is weak and helpless, and therefore the trials and virus have to be here.
Dr. Golakai, who boldly expressed that he was ashamed, having accepted to work on the committee studying and trying the vaccines, noted that Ebola is a biochemical weapon grade four, and trials in America and other places were halted because of fear of eventualities.
He could not state what the impact will be on public health because as one person who opposed the trials during the committee’s meeting, he was overwhelmed by votes of those in supporter of the vaccine trials.
He said scientific research cannot be hastily done or based on political will. It should rather be based on careful and timely studies and consultations.
He also contended that because Liberians want to get garden eggs, pepper and other food stuff from Guinea, government has hastily opened the borders, warning that the reemergence of Ebola is imminent.
The Charge` d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy, Sheila Paskman, countered in a short statement that United States is partnering with Liberia to help the country and is not forcing its will on the country.
Meanwhile, participants in the dialogue were left with more doubts and questions than answers about the impact of the vaccine trials on public health as most questions to Dr. Kennedy were not addressed.