Deaths from covid-19 across Africa increased more than 80 percent over the last month, creating a humanitarian crisis which is capturing the world’s attention. Recognizing the gravity of the situation and realizing that a vaccine-resistant strain of the virus could develop there if nothing is done, the United States and China are now mobilizing to send tens of millions of vaccine doses to Africa, a continent with 1.3 billion people.
While it is imperative that wealthy countries stop hoarding vaccines, China’s motivations were called into question by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who accused the country of conducting “problematic vaccine diplomacy” in a way “that only serves the purpose of increasing their own influence rather than first and foremost saving lives.” But China would hardly be unique if this charge proved true.
Foreign governments and corporations have long used the promise of saving lives as a guise to justify the extraction of Africa’s natural wealth. Moreover, medical humanitarianism often came to include biomedical extraction from the continent — as viruses, parasites, plants and human subjects themselves became yet another resource upon which professional careers and commercial profits, largely benefiting Western scientists and corporations, were made.
This current situation recalls an earlier episode when Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, with the full support of the U.S. government, tried to use medical assistance in Liberia to solidify control of land, labor and the Liberian government in the making of a vast rubber empire. The Liberian government stood its ground and the attempt largely failed. Nevertheless, the promotion of medical assistance continued to aid Firestone’s grip on the country and helped turn Liberia into an experimental laboratory for American biomedical research.
In the early 1920s, Americans owned 80 percent of the world’s automobiles and consumed 75 percent of the world’s rubber. But only one percent of the world’s rubber grew under the U.S. flag. Then, in 1926 Harvey Firestone, chief executive of the U.S. rubber and tire manufacturing conglomerate that bore his name, secured a 99-year lease for up to 1 million acres of land from the Liberian government to grow a source of rubber free from British control.
Within three years, the Firestone Plantations Company had amassed a workforce of more than 10,000 Liberians, who cut down and cleared the rainforest. In its place, Firestone workers planted thousands of seedlings of the Pará rubber tree, to be cultivated for industrial rubber production.
Firestone’s capital investment was not without risks. Labor was in short supply. Conflict could erupt at any moment. And disease could easily destroy this newly built plantation world.
In 1929, a yellow fever outbreak along the coast of West Africa threatened to bring Firestone’s Liberia operations to a halt. The outbreak claimed many lives, including those of not only Firestone workers, but also the U.S. minister and Consul General William Francis, other foreign diplomats, traders and missionaries. Harvey Firestone, and his eldest son, Harvey Jr., pushed the Liberian government to cede control of its public health and sanitation operations to an American adviser.
Such a move would solidify the American company’s economic and political control in Liberia — an important development since the company neither owned the land nor controlled the labor where its rubber trees had taken root. The more Firestone could take power from the Liberian government by putting its affairs in the hands of American experts, the more opportunity it had to impose its will.
But the Liberian government saw through Firestone’s ploy. President Charles Dunbar Burgess King’s administration thwarted the company’s attempt to use “saving lives” to turn the country into an American protectorate. Liberia, a sovereign nation, was unwilling to bend to an act of imperialism cloaked in the garb of public health and humanitarianism. A year later, the yellow fever outbreak died out and Firestone’s maneuvers took a different tack.
Although Firestone never gained complete control of Liberia to serve its rubber empire, the firm did facilitate the extraction of biomedical resources from West Africa in the name of saving lives.
Such possibilities had been on Firestone’s mind at least as early as 1927 when he financed Harvard scientist A. Watson Sellards, tropical medicine expert, in his quest to obtain a sample of the yellow fever virus from a human subject. While Sellards failed in Liberia, he succeeded in Senegal, and the sample he obtained eventually enabled Max Theiler to develop the 17D yellow fever vaccine, for which he would win the 1951 Nobel Prize.
Meanwhile, wartime demands for rubber, the granting of large iron ore concessions to U.S. steel firms and Liberian President William Tubman’s defense of free market capitalism had turned Liberia into a strategic partner of the United States during and after the Second World War.
As part of this deepening partnership, in 1946, Harvey Firestone Jr. pledged $250,000 to establish an American institute for research in tropical medicine as a memorial to his father’s commitment to the welfare and “well-being” of the Liberian people. Yet, his pledge belied worker conditions on the plantations, where housing and health care for White management and Black laborers were segregated, and medical surveillance and drug testing of workers was routine. Such conditions provided a clear indication that Firestone’s concerns were less focused on the well-being of Liberians and more on company profits. Although the company provided workers free medical care, strikes that shut down Firestone operations off and on for more than a decade throughout the 1950s were symptomatic of the harsh treatment laborers endured.
Tubman’s hopes that the Liberia Institute of the American Foundation for Tropical Medicine would help advance the general health of Liberia’s population were quickly dashed. The facility became an enclave of White scientists from a handful of largely American universities who did little if anything to educate or advance the medical and research careers of promising Liberian staff. Some studies, such as that of parasitologist R.S. Bray, were also highly suspect forays into racist science.
Liberia continued to be used as an outpost of American biomedical research and natural resource extraction during the Cold War.
In the 1960s, widespread incidence of hepatitis among post-transfusion patients in the United States raised increasing concerns about contamination of the U.S. blood supply. Such fears drove medical and commercial efforts to develop blood screening kits, cleaning reagents and a hepatitis B vaccine to protect the health of doctors, nurses and patients.
Liberia was an ideal place to pursue research and testing on the development of a hepatitis B vaccine. The country had one of West Africa’s largest populations of wild chimpanzees, a species regarded by researchers as an ideal human surrogate for vaccine testing. Furthermore, high rates of hepatitis B among Liberians themselves offered limitless possibilities for the study of disease transmission, blood sampling and vaccine efficacy.
In 1974, the New York Blood Center, a major supplier of blood products to hospitals in and around New York City, capitalized upon the infrastructure put in place by Firestone to establish an experimental laboratory, Vilab II, on the site of the former Liberia Institute of Tropical Medicine. Vilab II was conveniently located near Harbel, the headquarters of the Firestone plantations and adjacent to Roberts International Airport, where regular Pan Am flights made weekly shipments of supplies and samples between Liberia and the United States possible.
Access to cheap animals and a cheap human workforce, and the ability to maneuver in a country with lax ethical protocols and regulations, enabled the NYBC to test a number of hepatitis B vaccines that were successfully brought to market. However, these vaccines proved too expensive for most Liberians to acquire.
The coronavirus vaccines being sent to Africa from the United States and China starting this month are an important step but do not go far enough. An international petition organized by front line Ebola workers in Africa aimed at the World Health Organization and rich nations is calling for more: global vaccine equity. Equal access to vaccines would be strategic for saving lives and helping stop the spread of the coronavirus. But it would also move toward compensating Africans for centuries of exploitation, in which Africa has long provided the resources and labor upon which wealth and medical advancements have been built.