WHO: Committee finds DRC Ebola remains a PHEIC, while international team sets Covid-19 research priorities

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Instability, continued cases, global Covid-19 spread highlight needs for strengthened health systems in DRC and worldwide

With promising signs that a year and a half of efforts to end the spread of Ebola in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo may at last be paying off, an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization found that the continued, if substantially slowed emergence of new cases as well as ongoing violent conflict and political instability indicate that the outbreak remains a public health emergency of international concern — a PHEIC.

The decision was the outcome of the latest of a series of meetings on the part of that committee, which met four times before deciding in July 2019 that the outbreak, then nearly a year on, merited the designation that commands international attention — if not international response.

Ebola emergency committee chair Professor Robert Steffen cited concerns about the latter, in discussing a decision that he said was made “despite cautious optimism,” but also with awareness of risks of “resurgence, and also of complacence.”

He noted “two dark clouds,” that obscure the view of an end to the DRC’s longest outbreak of Ebola: continued violence in the areas most affected by the outbreak, and limited responses and involvement on the part of global leaders. “Global solidarity,” he said, “is still needed.”

The announcement was delivered in a briefing that also included updates on WHO and international researchers’s responses to the Covid-19 epidemic in China and the spread of the novel coronavirus to countries around the world.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cited the latest coronavirus outbreak when he said he will travel Thursday to DRC capital Kinshasa to discuss next steps to strengthen the nation’s health system and outbreak preparedness. While 2,249 people have lost their lives to the DRC’s current Ebola outbreak, Dr. Tedros noted, more than 6,300 people have died as a result of measles, in shorter period. “Strengthening health systems may not be as sexy [as responses to a growing outbreak]” he said, “but it is equally important.”

At the same time, needs to develop tools, systems and strategies supporting immediate responses to the spread of Covid-19 brought a team of experts to Geneva, where they developed a list of immediate priorities that include gathering and analyzing information on the origins, transmission dynamics, and epidemiology of the outbreak, effective treatments, uniform data collection on exposure patterns, symptoms and outcomes, research protocols, and effectiveness of infection control efforts.

As of this morning 44,730 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in China, and 1,114 have died as a result of the disease, Dr. Tedros said. The 441 cases diagnosed in 24 countries outside of China indicates the possibility that the spread is slowing, but that could change, he said. While three cruise ships, including one outside Yokohama, Japan where 40 people have now been diagnosed with the virus, have been delayed or denied port entry because of the outbreak, Cambodia today agreed to admit a cruise ship that had been held offshore, he said.

Praising Cambodia’s decision, Dr. Tedros reiterated his call for “solidarity, not stigma.”

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