With the world's second worst Ebola outbreak in history recently spreading to a major city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Merck must do more to ensure all options are on the table to fight the virus, including ensuring vaccines are available to all who need them.
Although there have been marked improvements compared to the 2014 outbreak response in West Africa, a more ambitious effort is needed now in the Congo. The WHO has yet to declare the crisis an international emergency, even though it meets its own criteria for what constitutes one. Additionally, Merck Pharmaceuticals only has 300,000 doses of its proven Ebola vaccine on hand—far too little than what is needed now that the virus has reached Butembo, a sprawling urban area home to over 1 million people.
WHO's own Deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response Dr. Peter Salama voiced his concerns over insufficient quantities of the vaccine just last week. AHF urges the WHO to expedite the approval process for Merck's vaccine and the other vaccine options that have a proven to be effective against Ebola. The costs for these delays are being paid for with valuable lives—lives that can be saved with a more ambitious effort.
Merck should also be stockpiling and preparing to expedite enough vaccines should the virus break ring-vaccination containment, which would require vastly more doses than what are currently being used. If cost is an obstacle, Merck should use funds it has allocated for humanitarian relief.
Equally important is the safety and security of the healthcare workers operating throughout the country. Armed groups are systematically disrupting efforts to vaccinate and educate the populace, often with fatal consequences. The WHO and UN must protect the men and women working to reach and vaccinate people in remote areas, including by deploying troops, if necessary.
"Now is not the time to waver in our response to Ebola, as we have seen the devastation it can cause," said Dr. Penninah Iutung, Africa Bureau Chief for AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "AHF urges the World Health Organization to immediately declare this outbreak an international emergency and bolster vaccine options before it is too late. AHF also implores Merck to make sure enough vaccines are ready for immediate use. There is too much at stake and no worthwhile reason to wait."