AS THE world learned in 2014, early action against a pandemic is absolutely critical to save lives. In the Ebola outbreak that year, the global response was abysmal and lethargic. The virus killed 11,314 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. This is why specialists are worried about a new outbreak in Congo, first discovered in a remote area but now at the doorstep of Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million, where one case has been confirmed. This is not yet a wildfire, but rapid response is the best way to make sure it does not become one.
The World Health Organization came in for justified criticism after the 2014 pandemic. A subsequent study found that it fell down on all of its core functions: helping nations build health-care capacity, providing early warning, establishing technical norms and mobilizing resources. The WHO appears to have learned the lessons, and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, vows “decisive action” this time, although there are still funding shortfalls. Nothing less than a full-court press will do. One of the new tools available is more than 7,000 injections of an experimental vaccine being delivered from pharmaceutical firm Merck; the vaccine was shown to be effective in limited trials during the West Africa outbreak.
Ebola causes internal bleeding and spreads rapidly through contact with small amounts of bodily fluid. Endemic in Congo, it is often transmitted to humans by contact with an infected animal. The first reports of this outbreak were from Bikoro, a small town more than 90 miles from Mbandaka, where the WHO says health facilities have limited functionality and are difficult to reach. While it is no small challenge to stop the virus in such distant points, cities present a nightmare scenario. The WHO senior official fighting the outbreak, Peter Salama, said the spread to Mbandaka meant there was the potential for an “explosive increase” in cases. The toll so far is 45 cases, of which 10 are suspected, 21 probable and 14 confirmed; 25 people have died.
It is too easy to dismiss this as a faraway problem. In a world of globalized transportation, dangerous pathogens do not stop at passport control. Braking Ebola in Congo is essential to keeping it from Chicago. The Trump administration seems to get this point in theory — a recent report declared, “An infectious disease threat anywhere can be a threat everywhere.” But in practice, the National Security Council is being reorganized, and responsibility for pandemic response is being given to those already burdened by other difficult issues, such as fighting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. What has long been needed is to treat Ebola and other pandemic risks like the singular national security danger they are, and to install a prominent coordinator who is devoted to marshaling resources for combating them before they wreak havoc on a wide scale. This was also a lesson of 2014. Have we not learned it?