Aid group says WHO is restricting access to Ebola vaccines in Congo

Ebola vaccines

A rigid system of eligibility set by the World Health Organization means far too few people at risk of Ebola are being vaccinated in an outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo, the aid group MSF said on Monday.

The medical charity Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) said its efforts to get more people to be given the vaccine – developed by the U.S. drugmaker Merck (MRK.N) and being used in emergency plans in the Congo epidemic – were being frustrated by “tight controls on supply and eligibility criteria imposed by the WHO”.

“Time is of essence in an outbreak: medical teams should be able to rapidly provide treatments or vaccines based on what they see on the ground,” MSF’s emergency coordinator Natalie Roberts said in a statement.

“But our capacity… is severely undermined by a rigid system which is hard to comprehend.”

The WHO denied it was rationing the vaccine and said it was working as hard as any organization to end Congo’s deadly Ebola outbreak.

“We partner closely with the DRC government to reach as many communities and individuals in the outbreak area as possible and are not limiting access to vaccine,” it said.

The Congo Ebola outbreak has killed more than 2,100 people since the middle of last year, second only to the 2013-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,300.

The WHO and the Congolese health ministry say that since August 2018, more than 223,000 people have been vaccinated with rVSV-ZEBOV, the Merck vaccine that has been shown in clinical trials to be highly protective against Ebola infection.

Congo health authorities also gave the go-ahead on Saturday for plans to introduce a second Ebola vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), to help fight the outbreak.

The Merck shot is being deployed in a strategy known as “ring vaccination”, which aims to control Ebola by identifying and offering the vaccine to contacts of those likely to be infected.

The WHO said that because Ebola spreads via person-to-person contact, this is “the most effective means of stopping” its spread, but MSF’s Roberts likened the situation to “giving firefighters a bucket of water to put out a fire, but only allowing them to use one cup of water a day”.

The WHO said the Merck vaccine eligibility and strategy were recommended by independent specialists in agreement with Congo.

The plan with addition of the J&J vaccine, it said, is to extend protection by providing it to “targeted at-risk populations” in areas where the disease is not yet being actively transmitted.

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