Amid push for J&J vaccine in Congo Ebola outbreak, health minister steps aside

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed more than 1,700 lives, according to a recent WHO update. (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Merck & Co. has supplied hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses to fight the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, now aflame in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But some experts are pushing officials to add Johnson & Johnson's vaccine into the mix—and a government minister has stepped aside because of it.

As the death toll mounts past 1,700, the World Health Organization, Medicines Sans Frontiers and others are pressing for J&J’s vaccine, Al Jazeera reports. In response, the nation's president took control of the fight, prompting health minister Oly Ilunga to resign. 

In his resignation letter, Ilunga cited unidentified “actors” pushing to incorporate J&J’s vaccine into the response. But as he sees it, J&J vaccine hasn't shown efficacy and could cause confusion if used during the outbreak.

Still, Ilunga said he doesn't want to interfere with the president's efforts. "As in any war, because that is what this is, there cannot be several centers of decision-making for risk of creating confusion," Ilunga wrote, according to Al Jazeera.

Ilunga's departure could clear the way for J&J’s shot, Reuters reports. Neither vaccine is approved, but so far Merck’s vaccine has played the central role in the fight against the disease. The outbreak started in August 2018 and, as of Sunday, there were 2,498 confirmed cases and 1,743 deaths. 

As the situation has worsened, WHO last week called the outbreak a public health emergency with international concern. 

In response, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Director Peter Piot said in a statement that it’s an “exceptionally complex epidemic” and that officials “must use all of the tools and approaches at our disposal, including the coordinated use of both the Merck and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.” 

RELATED: As Merck Ebola vaccine runs short in Congo, WHO looks to J&J experimental drug 

Wellcome Trust’s epidemic lead Josie Golding said in a statement the outbreak “shows no sign of stopping soon,” adding that there’s a “pressing need to introduce a second vaccine” to the fight against the disease.