The World Health Organisation has been given the go-ahead by officials in Democratic Republic of Congo to import and use an experimental Ebola vaccine, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“We have agreement, registration plus import permit, everything formally agreed,” Tedros told reporters. “All is ready now to really use it.”
Vaccinations could begin by Monday, he said.
The vaccine, developed by Merck in 2016, has proven safe and effective in human trials, but is still experimental as it does not yet have a licence. It must be kept at -60 to -80 degrees Celsius, creating logistic challenges.
The vaccine, tested in Guinea in 2015 at the end of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, is designed for use in a so-called “ring vaccination” approach.
This means when a new Ebola case is diagnosed, all people who might have been in recent contact are traced and vaccinated to prevent the disease spreading.
The WHO said the DR Congo reported 39 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of Ebola between April 4 and May 13, including 19 deaths.
It said 393 people were identified as contacts of Ebola patients were being followed up.
Tedros travelled to Congo and flew to the remote area, still only accessible by motorbike or helicopter, where the deadly haemorrhagic disease has broken out.
“Being there is very, very important. If a general cannot be with his troops in the front linehe’s not a general,” he said.
“And the second thing is, associated with Ebola there is stigma. We have to go and show should that really stop. And if there is risk, my life is not better than anyone.”
He praised the Congolese government, including President Joseph Kabila whom he met during his trip.
Information about the outbreak in Bikoro, Iboko and Wangata in Equateur province was still limited, the WHO said, but the outbreak does not meet criteria for declaring a “public health event of international concern”, which would trigger the formation of an emergency WHO committee.