Congo health minister resigns over government's Ebola handling

Congo's health minister, Oly Ilunga, has resigned in protest over the presidency's announcement last week that it was stripping his team of control over the response to the Ebola outbreak.

Oly Ilunga quits after president's office said it would assert more control

Congo's Health Minister Oly Ilunga had been opposed to introducing another experimental vaccine. (Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro/The Associated Press)

Congo's health minister, Oly Ilunga, resigned on Monday in protest over the presidency's announcement last week that it was stripping his team of control over the response to the Ebola outbreak.

Ilunga has overseen the nearly year-long response to Democratic Republic of Congo's latest Ebola epidemic, which is the second deadliest in history. It has killed more than 1,700 people and infected more than 800 others.

But President Felix Tshisekedi's office announced on Saturday that it was assigning responsibility for the response to a multi-disciplinary team that would report directly to Tshisekedi.

In his resignation letter, Ilunga decried "interference in the management of the response" and criticized outside pressure to deploy a second Ebola vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson over his objections.

"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.

It was not immediately clear which actors he was referring to, but international donors like the World Health Organization and medical charity Doctors Without Borders have publicly called for the use of the second vaccine.

2nd vaccine called confusing

Ilunga says the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has not been proved to be effective and that deploying a second vaccine would confuse people. The company has said the vaccine, which has gone through Phase 1 trials, is safe.

The vaccine currently being used is manufactured by Merck and has been administered to about 170,000 people.

Earlier this month, the health ministry said in a statement that there wasn't sufficient evidence regarding the efficacy of other vaccines, and that introducing another one risked "confusing the population."

Johnson & Johnson said the vaccine has been tested on more than 6,000 volunteers and raised no particular safety concerns.

Its chief scientific officer, Paul Stoffels, said in a telephone interview that the company had been "very transparent, very open and in full communication" with Congolese authorities.

Building a protective 'curtain'

He said the company had discussed how people could be vaccinated around eastern Congo's biggest city, Goma, where a first Ebola case was confirmed last week, to create a protective "curtain."

"Whether they use it or not, it's fine for us," said Stoffels, referring to Congolese officials. "They have to judge based on their personal knowledge of how and where to use it."

The WHO and other international donors including medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières have publicly supported using the second vaccine, of which 1.5 million doses are available.

A WHO spokesperson said the organization was grateful for Ilunga's leadership and dedication and looked forward to "working closely with the new co-ordination team as we have with the previous one."

Last week, the organization labelled the outbreak an international emergency, a rare designation aimed at galvanizing global support as the disease threatens to gain a foothold in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.

Only the 2013-16 epidemic in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people has been deadlier.