Ebola Vaccine Too Restricted By WHO, Says Doctors Without Borders The international humanitarian group says the World Health Organization is restricting access to the vaccine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the current outbreak has killed more than 2,100.
NPR logo Doctors Without Borders Calls For More Transparency In Distribution Of Ebola Vaccine

Doctors Without Borders Calls For More Transparency In Distribution Of Ebola Vaccine

A girl receives the Ebola vaccine in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo. Jerome Delay/AP hide caption

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Jerome Delay/AP

A girl receives the Ebola vaccine in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jerome Delay/AP

Doctors Without Borders is accusing the World Health Organization of restricting the availability of the Ebola vaccine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dr. Isabelle Defourny, the group's director of operations, said in a statement Monday that at least 2,000 people could be receiving the vaccine each day, instead of the maximum of 1,000 who are vaccinated daily at present. She called for WHO to supply more vaccines to medical teams.

"WHO is restricting the availability of the vaccine in the field and the eligibility criteria and their application for reasons that are unclear," said Defourny. "We think that upping the pace of vaccination is necessary and feasible."

Ebola has killed more than 2,100 people in Congo since August 2018. The Ebola outbreak in Congo was declared a "public health emergency of international concern" by WHO this past July, following the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost 2 million people.

The only vaccine currently being administered is rVSV-ZEBOV, produced by pharmaceutical giant Merck. It is being used on a "compassionate basis," which allows special use of an unlicensed drug for people in extreme circumstances.

The vaccine is distributed using a ring approach that prioritizes individuals at higher risk of infection because of their close proximity to someone previously infected with the virus. This strategy is used mainly for unlicensed drugs that require further clinical study before being mass distributed. WHO reports that more than 223,000 people have received the vaccine during the current outbreak.

Doctors Without Borders is calling for the establishment of an "an independent, international coordination committee to facilitate more transparent management of the Ebola vaccination program," which the group believes would increase the number of people getting the vaccine.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, wrote in an email to NPR that such a committee could apply only to commercially licensed vaccines. The current vaccine still requires more scientific research before being licensed.

Additionally, Ryan defended WHO's strategies.

"We partner closely with the DRC government to reach as many communities and individuals in the outbreak area as possible," Ryan said. WHO is "not limiting access to [the] vaccine but rather implementing a strategy recommended by an independent advisory body of experts (SAGE) and as agreed with the government of the DRC and partners."

Doctors Without Borders' criticism comes on the same day that WHO announced that a second vaccine complementing rVSV-ZEBOV will be introduced in Congo next month. The new vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, will be provided to "at-risk populations in areas that do not have active Ebola transmission."

Paolo Zialcita is an intern on NPR's News Desk.