World Health Organization chief paid tribute to the late Henrietta Lacks, an American whose cancer cells eventually laid the groundwork for vast scientific breakthroughs, including coronavirus research
“What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” Tedros said at a special ceremony at WHO headquarters in Geneva before presenting the Director-General’s Prize for Henrietta Lacks to her 87-year-old son, Lawrence Lacks, under the gaze of several of his other descendants.
Tedros noted that Lacks lived during a time when racial discrimination was legal in the United States and that it remains widespread, although it is no longer legal in most countries.
“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies have been misused by science, ”he said. “She trusted the health system to be able to seek treatment. But the system took something from him without his knowledge or consent. “
“The medical technologies that have been developed from this injustice have been used to perpetuate other injustices because they have not been shared fairly around the world,” Tedros added.
The HeLa cell line – a name derived from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last name – was a scientific breakthrough. Tedros said cells were “fundamental” in the development of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, which can kill the cancer that claimed his life.
Last year, according to the WHO, less than 25% of low-income countries and less than 30% of lower-middle-income countries had access to HPV vaccines through national immunization programs, compared to over 85% of high income countries. countries.
“A lot of people have benefited from these cells. Fortunes have been made. Science has advanced. Nobel Prizes have been won and, most importantly, many lives have been saved, ”said Tedros. “There is no doubt that Henrietta would have been delighted that her suffering had saved others. But the end does not justify the means.
The WHO has said that more than 50 million metric tons (55 million tonnes) of HeLa cells have been distributed worldwide and used in more than 75,000 studies.
Last week, the Lacks estate sued an American biotech company, accusing it of selling cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from it without its knowledge or consent as part of a “scheme. racially unfair medical treatment ”.
“We stand in solidarity with patients and marginalized communities around the world who are not consulted, engaged or empowered in their own care,” said Tedros.
“We are convinced that in medicine and science, the lives of blacks matter,” he added. “Henrietta Lacks’ life counted – and still matters. Today is also the occasion to recognize these women of color who have made incredible but often invisible contributions to medical science. “