The current outbreak of COVID-19 in West Africa, especially Ghana, has spread quickly in an alarming manner. As of June 22nd, Ghana has had 14,514 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 85 deaths. Africa has seen over 300,000 cases and over 8,000 deaths.
This is a challenging time for African countries that already struggle with fragile healthcare, and the economic repercussions are harsh as well. The Government of Ghana has made it clear that until a vaccine is available, the nation cannot return life to normalcy—yet I, along with many others, cannot afford to stay indoors forever, My entire career as a graphic designer is dependent on events, parties, and other gatherings. My wife is a fashion designer and equally relies on weddings and events for her business. We can’t afford to starve my family of food and basic items any longer.
I am not alone. Many families are struggling as economic growth in Ghana is projected to reach a 37-year low. One man who operates a food bank in Accra said that Ghana is “filled with desperation and anxiety - people wondering what will kill them first, hunger or COVID-19.”
So, to help end this pandemic, I have volunteered to be part of a potential human challenge trial to speed up the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. In such a trial, a potential vaccine is given to subjects who are then deliberately exposed to the coronavirus to speed COVID-19 vaccine development. Volunteers in such a trial will be young and healthy to minimize risk and will receive high-quality medical care.
It is also important for me to volunteer for this trial as a Ghananian. Africans, myself included, are not immune to this virus and an effective Covid-19 vaccine must work for all people. To help speed up vaccine development and get effective vaccines tested, we must participate in trials to assess how our immune systems react to the vaccine compared to our European counterparts in order to prove its efficacy. As Ugandan epidemiologist Catherine Kyobutungi wrote in a recent piece for BBC, Africans “have different circumstances, different genetic make-up that may affect how the vaccine works.” African representation is therefore crucial in any vaccine trial.
Many Africans lost their lives fighting Ebola, AIDS, flu, malaria and cholera, so some of us have made sacrifices for the sake of public health. Volunteering for a vaccine challenge trial is just one of those ways we can directly contribute to this common human struggle and also stand behind our colleagues and friends in Africa. Being part of this vaccination process is something small I could do to hopefully make a huge impact.
The situation in West Africa is tragic and harm is already being done as Ghana is being destroyed by this disease. The risk to the hundreds of individuals who would volunteer for challenge studies is far outweighed by the harm done to our country every day. And there is no foreseeable end to that harm. I am volunteering for a challenge trial because Ghana and the entire world need a vaccine as soon as possible. This is a risk I am taking so that vaccine trials are safe, rapid, and inclusive of African volunteers.
By: Felix Aboagye