Henrietta Lacks. She was just a poor, black tobacco farmer. When Henrietta Lacks fell sick, a doctor took cells from her body without her consent. The doctor, George Gey, was to then appear on a Television show with a little bottle. He said, "Now let me show you a bottle in which we have grown massive quantities of cancer cells. It is quite possible that from such fundamental studies such as these that we will be able to learn a way by which cancer can be completely wiped out."
From Henrietta Lacks came something undying. From a poor black woman with cancer, came enduring cells that have been used in different experiments and driven countless medical advances in hemophilia, herpes, influenza, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease as well as the polio vaccine, the cancer drug tamoxifen, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. The cells have gained an identity of their own: the HeLa cells. Billions of dollars have been made from her. But Henrietta Lacks did not give her consent. She was not compensated for sharing a piece of her body. It is a shameful travesty but Western scientists are unrepentant.
In West Africa, the Telegraph reports, thousands of blood samples were taken from patients during the 2014-2016 Ebola breakout and are now held in secretive laboratories. Scientists from the source countries are being denied access for their own research. It is a classic case of biological asset stripping.
More than 296,000 samples were collected and some were destroyed but thousands were shipped out. The United Kingdom, for example, holds more than 10,000 samples. Laboratories in France, the United States, and South Africa have refused to disclose the number of samples they have. It is shameful that South Africa even makes this unholy list and one would hope the South Africans would be more co-operative than the rest but alas. A Liberian technician told the Telegraph, "We took risks and we never benefited. After the samples were collected, we were left out of the picture."
The technician is in a privileged position as he has the full details of what is happening; the real owners of the blood samples have no idea that their blood is being used for research. The Telegraph interviewed a number of survivors who said they did not know their blood is being used for research and they did not give their consent. It is the story of Henrietta Lacks on a grander scale.
For many people, it is not even that they would have refused to provide samples but a basic need to be dignified and humanized with choices. They are not guinea pigs. Isaac Seeman, a man who lost everything to Ebola and almost lost his life said, "They didn’t ask for my consent. They didn’t ask for my approval … I wouldn’t have said no. They are using it to make research, make billions of dollars … that medicine they produce will not be free. It will be something that you will sell."
The profiteering has already begun. An unnamed woman from Guinea with a blood sample coded C15 is unaware of it but the virus isolated from her blood is already selling at over $4000.00, a price 170 times that of gold. She will get no part of those monstrous amounts.
Header Image: Delaney/AP