Photograph — Politico

Oly Ilunga, the minister of health of the Democratic Republic of Congo has resigned following his dismissal as the head of the team responsible for managing the country’s Ebola outbreak right after the World Health Organization’s declaration that the outbreak is of international concern.

Ilunga has been in charge of the DRC’s year-long response to what is the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history with a fatality rate of about 66 percent. Ebola in the DRC has killed over 1650 people among 2,484 confirmed cases. 

President Felix Tshisekedi announced Oly Ilunga’s dismissal on Saturday and appointed Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, the head of Congo’s biomedical research institute to lead a new Ebola response team meant to report directly to him. Tamfum was part of the team that investigated the first known Ebola outbreak in 1976.

In his resignation letter, released via Twitter, Ilunga said the president’s move could jeopardize efficiency and consistency in the country’s response to Ebola and criticised external pressure to introduce a second experimental vaccine by Johnson & Johnson. So far, the DRC has only administered vaccines manufactured by Merck to over 160,000 people, and it has proved effective.

The WHO and a host of health experts had encouraged the DRC to use the vaccine by Johnson & Johnson as a complement to the Merck vaccine, but Ilunga had objected saying the deployment of a second vaccine would confuse people and increase anxiety within a populace already suspicious of vaccines. He also said that the vaccine has not proved effective

“It would be fanciful to think that the new vaccine proposed by actors who have shown an obvious lack of ethics by voluntarily hiding important information from medical authorities, could have a significant impact on the control of the current outbreak,” he said.

But according to Johnson & Johnson, the vaccine has been tested on more than 6,000 volunteers in a phase 1 trial and raised no particular safety concerns. Paul Stoffels, the company’s chief scientific officer, told Reuters that Johnson & Johnson had been very transparent, very open and in full communication with DRC’s authorities.

Stoffel said the company has discussed with Tamfum how the vaccines can be used in Goma, one of DRC’s biggest cities where a first Ebola case was confirmed last week. He also said that the decision to use or not use the vaccine, and how to use it, rests solely on the Congolese health officials.

Hopefully, with Ilunga out of the way, the newly appointed Tamfum and his team will employ every possible means to contain the year-long Ebola outbreak in the DRC, including the deployment of a new experimental vaccine by Johnson & Johnson. 

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