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Digital health-data gathering could boost ‘safari research’

Gaps in ethics rules could leave South Africa’s population open to exploitation

Gaps in South Africa’s research ethics regime put the population at risk of exploitation by foreign researchers, a top bioethicist has warned.

Keymanthri Moodley, a professor at the Centre for Medical Ethics and Law at Stellenbosch University, issued the warning in a 30 September editorial in the South African Medical Journal.

Focusing on the gathering of health-related data, she writes: “Undoubtedly, electronic data collection and sharing has opened the floodgates for global misuse of research data from the Global South.”

She cites a recent digital survey carried out in South Africa by United Kingdom-based researchers as indicative of “imperialistic research” or “safari research” that might flourish in the Covid-19 era, where digital tools have gained prominence in research.

Moodley says the survey, about abortion in South Africa, involved no South African researchers and did not have the approval of a local research ethics committee. This was confirmed by the lead researcher, according to Moodley.

She argues that current efforts to revise the South African Good Clinical Practice Guidelines and other research ethics guidelines should incorporate ethical and legal issues related to digital research. 

Doing so will ensure that “all South Africans—participants, clinicians, academics, research ethics committee members, regulators, researchers and medical journal/newsletter editors—are acutely aware of potential loopholes in the system,” she writes.