A gloomy report from the Democratic Republic of the Congo served as a stark reminder that threats other than Covid-19 still exist during the pandemic as it was revealed that one region in the country has seen a fresh wave of Ebola cases. The outbreak in the country’s northwest came just as the region had been hoping to announce that the epidemic had finally ended. The news raises particular concern following recent events pertaining to the relationship between the United States and the World Health Organization (WHO) as Donald Trump announced they would be suspending funding to the agency responsible for international public health. The US is currently the biggest contributor to WHO funds.
DR Congo’s Health Minister, Eteni Longondo, announced in a press conference that four people who died in a district of the northwestern city of Mbandaka had samples taken by the National Institute of Biomedical Research that tested positive for Ebola. There are plans in place to get medicines and vaccines to Mbandaka, which has a population of over 1 million, as soon as possible but at this early stage it’s not known how many people may have been exposed to the disease.
Ebola in the DRC’s east has killed 2,280 people since it first arrived in 2018, according to AFP, and the country had hoped to announce that the epidemic was over this June. The conditions for announcing that the outbreak is over are that there have to have been no new cases reported for 42 days, a number that represents twice the average incubation period for Ebola.
The resurgence is a major blow for the DR Congo which is already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, and the bad news is compounded by the recent announcement by Trump that the US will be halting its funding to the WHO, which monitors and responds to outbreaks such as Ebola and Covid-19. Funding from the US currently constitutes around 20 percent of the agency’s budget, their largest single benefactor, as the US has previously contributed $450 million (£360 million) a year, according to an analysis of the WHO’s funding conducted by NPR.
Trump announced the move to suspend funding for 60 to 90 days in mid-April of this year as the White House tried to shift the blame of the administration's delayed response to Covid-19 onto the WHO by conducting a review of the agency's response. The US was declared the epicenter of disease in April and has now surpassed 100,000 deaths from Covid-19, the highest death toll in the world.
Experts have argued that the President alone can’t pull the US from the WHO and that Trump would need Congressional approval before he could suspend funding indefinitely. However, even a short stopgap in funding could spell disaster for smaller countries that rely on the WHO for medications and vaccinations in the face of public health scares.
“That’s bad enough for the world’s most vulnerable people, but it also means that scientists in the US will be fighting with one arm behind their back against covid-19 and future public health threats,” said Terry McGovern, director of the Program on Global Health Justice and Governance at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, to Gizmodo.
“We will lose vital information from the ground on new outbreaks, effective implementation of a response, etc. And on a day-to-day basis, longstanding trusted relationships between the CDC, WHO, and local public health officials will be disrupted.”