What we know about the Emirati company managing COVID-19 clinical trials in Egypt
 
 
FILE PHOTO: A booth displaying a coronavirus vaccine candidate from Sinovac Biotech Ltd is seen at the 2020 China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS), following the COVID-19 outbreak, in Beijing, China September 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo
 

Some 6,000 people in Egypt will participate in phase-three clinical trials of two Chinese coronavirus vaccines in the coming period, Health Minister Hala Zayed announced over the weekend, in a move she described as being for the benefit of “humanity.”

The clinical trials for the vaccines, developed by the state-owned Chinese company Sinopharm, have already begun being administered through the Holding Company for Biological Products and Vaccines (VACSERA), which also has a contract to manufacture the vaccine in Egypt. 

The vaccines are scheduled to be given to Egyptian volunteers over a period of two months, followed by a 12-month period of regular medical supervision. 

As news emerged from the Health Ministry about the potential side effects of the proto-vaccines, ranging from standard symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches, fever, headache, and nausea to more concerning such as “convulsions,” senior health figures rushed to reassure the public of its safety.

In an appearance on TV, on Monday night, Dr. Hossam Hosny, who heads the government’s coronavirus committee attempted to reassure the public. “My son and I have volunteered,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Hosny told viewers that “the political leadership is following up daily on news of the vaccine” and that “Egyptians will not be used as lab rats for unsafe vaccines.”

Forty-five thousand people across the world are to take part in phase three of the Sinopharm trials. 

However, in Egypt, concerns remain regarding the oversight of the clinical trials, especially in light of the fact that they are being conducted based on the experimental protocols approved by an Abu Dhabi-based healthcare company with a murky past. 

The company in question, G42 Healthcare, is responsible for rolling out trials in the region and sourcing patients from the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan

According to the G42’s website, it specializes in artificial intelligence solutions in several sectors, including healthcare. The company was the only major shareholder in the ToTok application that was the subject of a major expose in the New York Times last year after an investigation revealed that the application had used data from users’ phones in the interests of the UAE government. In the wake of the New York Times’ report, Google and Apple removed the app from their platforms. The US embassy in the Emirates has also directed its employees to delete the application from all US government devices, according to an American diplomat who spoke to the Associated Press.

Millions of users, especially people based in the Gulf, used the ToTok app for voice and video calls given the ban imposed on rival services, such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

 According to the New York Times’ investigation, the UAE government used the application to “try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment and voice of all those who install the application on their phones.”

Ping Shao, chairman of the G42’s board of directors, had previously managed Pegasus, a company affiliated with Emirati company DarkMatter, which specializes in digital security and is affiliated with Emirati intelligence bodies, according to a report by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published in October 2019.

Though ToTok was discontinued, the effect on G42’s reputation has persisted.

G42 announced in February that its services would be provided free of charge to scientists and researchers working to contain the pandemic. In March, the company opened a large virus testing center in the UAE in cooperation with a Chinese company BGI Group.

Yet according to a June report from the Financial Times, the American embassy rejected an offer from the UAE to conduct hundreds of coronavirus tests for embassy workers. Sources told the Financial Times that BGI Group’s relationship with “a company from Abu Dhabi with an opaque ownership structure” caused concerns about sensitive information regarding US diplomats being leaked to China. 

G42 began by recruiting subjects from within the UAE in July, before expanding the trials to Bahrain, Jordan and now Egypt.

According to the health minister’s statement, the ministry formed a national committee to supervise clinical trials. The committee is to be headed by Dr. Mohamed Hassanani, the deputy minister of health, and will also include officials from the Ministry of Health, medical services in the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Higher Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Egyptian Medicine Authority. 

Oversight of clinical trials is to be laid out in the clinical trials law that the House of Representatives passed in August, which President Sisi has not yet ratified. 

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which had participated in consultations to draft the law, clinical trials present unique advantages and potential dangers in Egypt’s healthcare landscape. 

“The demographic composition, the nature of the patients, and the low cost of conducting these experiments in Egypt are main incentives for conducting these experiments,” a recent EIPR report reads. “However, the downside of this is that the health system in Egypt does not enable some patients to obtain basic treatment, which may force them to participate in these trials despite the possibility of being exploited for the purpose of obtaining free treatment, even if the results of this treatment are unknown. This general climate facilitates the exploitation of the most vulnerable and needy citizens.”

EIPR raised these concerns during the consultation period on the draft law, hailing the legislation that was passed in August as a success of state cooperation with civil society as 85 percent of their recommendations were taken up by parliamentarians, most notably the formation of a Supreme Council for Medical Research Ethics. 

However, the organization still flagged concerns, specifically in the composition of the ethics body. According to EIPR, membership in the body will be limited to the executive authorities without adequate representation from researchers, experts and civil society.

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