Health in Africa

Oly Ilunga: Congo’s very own ‘Deep Throat’?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s health minister resigned on July 22, alleging that he was under strong pressure to introduce an anti-Ebola vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson

 
By Banjot Kaur
Last Updated: Wednesday 24 July 2019
The ex-health minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Oly Ilunga with Leila Zerrougui, Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Former health minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Oly Ilunga with Leila Zerrougui, Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Former health minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Oly Ilunga with Leila Zerrougui, Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There has been no word from officials of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) two days after the country’s health minister resigned alleging strong pressure to introduce a new anti-Ebola vaccine by Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

Oly Ilunga, the minister in question, had termed the new vaccine’s efficacy as ‘unrealistic’ in a letter written to the country’s president on July 22, 2019.

"The actors (who had pushed the vaccine) had demonstrated clear lack of ethics by voluntarily hiding important information from the health authorities. This can have a decisive impact on the whole operation to tackle the current epidemic," Illunga had written.

At present, a single dose ‘experimental’ vaccine named rVSV-ZEBOV, produced by the pharma major Merck, is being administered to Ebola-afflicted patients in DRC.

This vaccine is still to gain a licence but it had been tested in the earlier outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014.

More than 11,000 people, mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, had lost their lives to Ebola in 2014. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the Merck vaccine’s efficacy at 97 per cent.

On the other hand, the J&J vaccine is relatively new and still has to undergo trials.

The major difference between the two vaccines is that while Merck’s can be given in the middle of the outbreak to reign in the epidemic, J&J’s has to be given before the outbreak for the sake of preventing it. It can’t stop an outbreak like the Merck vaccine.

Moreover, while J&J’s vaccine is to be given in two doses in a gap of two months, Merck’s can be administered in a single dose, Ilunga noted.

This is important because the DRC is a conflict-ridden area where it is difficult for health workers working on the ground to identify the beneficiaries for the second time.

Lastly, when the outbreak is at its peak and health workers are scrambling on the ground to reach out to people, the introduction of a new vaccine would lead to confusion about the strategy the government was adopting, Ilunga had said.

This is not the first time that IIunga has raised an alarm about the vaccine. Earlier too, he had maintained this position and had not allowed the second vaccine to be introduce in the DRC

This was in stark contrast with agencies like the WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, all of whom are batting for the vaccine.

"Facing this exceptionally complex epidemic, we must use all of the tools and approaches at our disposal, including the coordinated use of both the Merck and Johnson & Johnson vaccines," Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine had said in an official statement.

In May 2019, the WHO had said about the vaccine, "The investigational Ebola vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson, is being considered and a team led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and other partners, with support from the WHO, are at an advanced stage towards the deployment and assessment of this vaccine".

Not just vaccines

Ilunga had raised an alarm not just about the vaccine but also several other issues concerning the way the DRC is tackling Ebola.

He had said that there were multiple power centres operating to tackle the outbreak and the country could not afford a lack of coherence in responding to Ebola.

“The lines of command must be clearly identified and defined. There cannot be more than one decision centre at the risk of creating confusion and cacophony,” Ilunga had said.

Outlining the fact that Ebola was not any other humanitarian crisis, Ilunga had said it was a public health crisis coupled with internal security issues.

This is important because the DRC is a conflict-ridden area and the health workers of many international agencies are not being positioned on the frontline for the fear of their own security.

Meanwhile, after Ilunga resigned, the president of the DRC had constituted a team of experts under the leadership of Jean Jacques Muyembe Tamfum.

He is the director-general of the DRC’s National Institute for Biomedical Research. He has also researched on the Ebola virus for a greater part of his life.

News reports from the DRC suggest that with Ilunga’s exit, the way for J&J’s vaccine has been cleared and the vaccine may be introduced now. However, there is no official word from the team of Tamfum yet.

Meanwhile, time seems to be ticking fast not just for the government of the DRC but the entire international community.

According to the latest figures of the WHO, as many as  2,592 people in DRC have been afflicted with the deadly virus out of which, 1,743 have died since August last year.

Incidentally, the WHO had declared this outbreak a global health emergency on July 17, 2019, only the fifth such public crisis ever to be declared so since 2005. 

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