The Johnson & Johnson vaccine introduction has sparked controversy among DRC health officials.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Monday that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will introduce the use of a second vaccine to control and in the long term eradicate the Ebola pandemic that has caused more than 2,000 deaths since it restarted in August 2018 in the country's eastern North Kivu and Ituri provinces.
“The health authorities in the DRC have announced plans to introduce a second experimental Ebola vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson (J&J), from mid- October,” the WHO said in its statement, adding that the vaccine will be provided “to targeted at-risk populations in areas that do not have active Ebola transmission.”
The new experimental vaccine will complement the current one produced by U.S. pharmaceutical group Merck, whose product will continue to be provided to health workers and people at high risk of infection.
Last July, the WHO recognized a shortage of the Merck vaccine, while J&J says it has 1.5 million doses of its vaccine to introduce to the market, meaning that if DRC wants to immunize people in other parts of the country it will need more supplies from both pharmaceutical giants.
J&J’s vaccine introduction has sparked controversy among DRC health officials. The country’s health minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga presented his resignation in July after President Felix Tshisekedi stripped him of the management of the pandemic.
Kalenga had denounced the creation of parallel chains of authority and the interference in the management of the response to the epidemic, but also the urging from foreign actors to introduce the second vaccine to be tested in DRC.
The former minister had expressed that the vaccine currently used proved its efficiency since it is estimated to be 97.5 percent effective, with the capacity to protect a person up to 12 months.
"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," the ex-official had stated recalling that some medical organizations have willingly hidden vital data from the country’s health authorities.
While J&J states on its website that it has tested the product on more than 6,000 volunteers in several trials, defenders including the WHO and the international medical organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF), have urged for its use, arguing that all "available tools and resources" must be mobilized to end the epidemic.
Backers of the use of the experimental vaccine proposed to use it to vaccinate and protect people outside the outbreak zone.
Health expert and United States law professor Lawrence Gostin welcomed on Monday the decision to introduce the experimental vaccine. "We need a major increase in vaccination coverage in the DRC ... [so] it must be rapidly implemented," Gostin told Al Jazeera.
"It is well within the power of DRC health authorities to educate the public without confusing them about the differences in the vaccines. The bottom line is simple; they are both very effective vaccines," he added.
Ebola’s crisis grew rapidly since it resurfaced 13 months ago, and is the second largest one just behind the crisis that hit West Africa in 2014.
Active armed groups and communities’ profound distrust in the medical health teams have so far hindered the efforts to stop the outbreak. However, and among the unrest, health workers have managed to vaccinate around 225,000 people with the Merck vaccine.