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Africa: how colonialism turned an entire continent into its guinea pig

On April 1, 2020, French physicians Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht suggested on a live television program that trials of a Covid-19 vaccine against should first be conducted in Africa.

Africa has historically suffered a process of invasion and colonization in all areas. It has been the main continent used by imperialist nations and pharmaceutical transnationals as a kind of laboratory in which medical practices and new social orders were (and still are) tested. The continent has played protagonist and silent witness of a process of intensified and expanded experimentation on its population, from pilot experiences to larger programs to produce and validate medical knowledge.

Medical trials in Africa are also linked to the economic interests of pharmaceutical companies, since in Global South countries they can carry out medical tests at low costs, but without having to deal with strong restrictions or regulations. For example: Philippe Kourilsky, Director General of the Institut Pasteur in Paris argues that “the urgency of meeting health needs in the Third World makes it possible to relax regulatory restrictions”.

According to a study by Chippaux (2005), at the end of the 1990s, the global turnover of the pharmaceutical industry (US$ 480 billion) exceeded the GDP of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa (US$ 380 billion), while out of the 1,450 new drugs marketed between 1972 and 1997, only 13 were intended to combat tropical diseases.

In the following map you can see in detail a chronology of some of these experiments and projects that were carried out in the past and those that continue nowadays.

The use of populations is not limited only to Africa, but extends to other places in Asia and America, territories that have also been used as guinea pigs for medical experiments and human laboratories by various imperialist states and pharmaceutical corporations. The call is not to forget these crimes that have been committed throughout history in order to prevent them from continuing to occur in the present.


Kelly AH. The Territory of Medical Research: Experimentation in Africa’s Smallest State. In: Geissler PW, editor. Para-States and Medical Science: Making African Global Health. Durham (NC): Duke University Press; 2015. Chapter 10.

Geissler, P. W. (Ed.). (2015). Para-states and medical science: Making African global health. Duke University Press.

Jean-Philippe Chippaux (2005) Africa file: Pharmaceutical colonialism in Africa. En: Le Monde Diplomatique

Philippe Kourilsky, « Vaccination : quand l’éthique devient immorale », Pour la science, Paris, 2004, 322, 8-11

Research and text: Aimee Zambrano y Mairim Gil. Artwork: Zahira. Translation: Yosra M’barek


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