Experts: Deployment of second Ebola vaccine not quick fix

Health worker administering Ebola vaccine

The resignation of Congo’s Health Minister in the midst of the country’s worst Ebola outbreak could clear the way for a second experimental vaccine to be deployed.

But the new shot would likely take months to win the trust of frightened locals and show results, health officials say.

Oly Ilunga, who opposed using the vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, resigned as Health Minister on Monday after being bumped off the Ebola response team.

The World Health Organization (WHO), recommended the two-dose shot to complement a vaccine by U.S. drug maker Merck, which has proved highly protective but is in relatively short supply.

Proponents, including medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the Wellcome Trust, said the new vaccine could be deployed to areas not yet affected by Ebola.

The aim is to create a firewall against the virus, which the WHO declared an international health emergency last week.

But Ilunga said the Johnson & Johnson (J&J), vaccine had not been proven effective and could confuse people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where wild rumours are hampering the response.

Oly Ilunga, Democratic Rebuplic of Congo’s Former Minister of Health.

“Congolese have the right to have the gold standard, the best vaccine,” he said on Thursday, in his first public comments since resigning. “They don’t need to be the subject of experimentation.”

“You can’t have a group of promoters, producers of the vaccine and university researchers wanting to introduce the vaccine without contacting the health authorities,” he said, without elaborating further.

Paul Stoffels, J&J’s Chief Scientific Officer, denied there were any efforts to secretly introduce the vaccine and said the company had been in full communication with Congolese authorities.

But scepticism about new medicines can resonate strongly on a continent where some pharmaceutical trials have faced accusations in the past of failing to obtain informed consent, and providing subpar care to participants.

For example, some U.S. government-funded trials of HIV drugs in the 1990s were accused of double standards for giving placebos to women in Africa, when effective therapies existed.

This is a practice that is not generally allowed in the United States and other Western nations on ethical grounds. Researchers defended the use of placebos as scientifically necessary.

Jean-Jacques Muyembe, an epidemiologist and Ebola expert named to lead Congo’s response team, dismissed Ilunga’s concerns and said authorities would revisit whether to deploy a second vaccine.

However, he downplayed the importance of the decision.

Jean-Jacques Muyembe, an Epidemiologist and Ebola expert leading Congo’s response team

“I don’t think that a vaccine is what’s holding back the response,” he said, noting that previous Ebola outbreaks had been contained quickly without a vaccine.

“We could use or not use. It won’t change the evolution of the epidemic,” he added.

The nearly year-long outbreak has infected more than 2,500 people and killed more than 1,700, numbers topped only by a 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,300.

This month, a case was detected in Goma, a city of 2 million on the border with Rwanda, heightening fears about the spread of the haemorrhagic fever.

Efforts to contain it have been undermined by mistrust of health workers and violence by armed militias. Treatment centres have been attacked.

Local campaigners say people are scared and confused about the various medicines being used. In addition to the vaccine, four experimental treatments are being given to Ebola patients.

All are still unlicensed, which means they can only be used in clinical trials overseen by Congo’s health ministry.

Health worker administering Ebola vaccine

“We should not introduce a second vaccine when we don’t yet have scientifically-proven conclusions from the one currently being tested,” said Matina Mwanack, the administrator of an advocacy group in the eastern Congo city of Butembo called Families United Against Ebola.

“We have suffered a lot from the lack of needed information about the vaccines and treatments being tested,” he added.

Omar Kavota, who heads a group of religious and political leaders in eastern Congo, said “introducing a second vaccine would amplify rumours”, including over why some patients got one while others received the second.

Muyembe said communicators had been appointed to make the process more transparent.


Chidi Nwoke.