The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a reminder that the security of samples taken during global health emergencies is a vital part of safeguarding biosecurity.
The world's second-largest Ebola outbreak is ongoing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and experts from around the world have been parachuted in to support the country's operation to stamp out the outbreak. The signs are encouraging, but we need to remain cautious.
In such emergencies, little thought is usually given to what happens to the body-fluid samples taken during the course of the outbreak after the crisis is over. What gets left behind has considerable implications for global biosecurity.
Having unsecured samples poses the obvious risk of accidental exposures to people who might come into contact with them, but what of the risk of malicious use? Bioterrorists would have ready access to materials that have the characteristics essential to their purpose: the potential to cause disease that is transmissible from person to person, the capacity to result in high fatality rates and, importantly, the ability to cause panic and social disruption at the very mention of them.
Comparisons can be drawn with the significant international impact of the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001. Not only was there a direct effect in the US with five deaths and a further 17 people infected, but there was a paralysis of public health systems in other countries involved in the testing of countless samples from the so-called 'white-powder incidents' that followed.
Many laboratory tests were done purely on a precautionary basis to eliminate any possibility of a risk, no matter how remote. However, the UK was also hit when a hoaxer sent envelopes of white powder labelled as anthrax to 15 MPs.
The threat of the pathogen alone resulted in widespread fear, the deployment of officers trained in response to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents and the evacuation of a hospital emergency department.
We learned from the 2014-16 West Africa Ebola outbreaks that during the emergency, the future biosecurity implications of the many thousands of samples taken from people were given very little consideration. It is reported that around 300,000 samples could remain in the region. However, it is impossible either to verify the figure or to be sure where they all are and whether they have been secured.
It is widely recognized that the systems needed at the time for tracking and monitoring resources, including those necessary for samples, were weak or absent, and this has to be addressed urgently along with other capacity-building initiatives.
In Sierra Leone, for example, the remaining biosecurity risk is only being addressed after the fact. To help achieve this, the government of Canada is in the process of providing a secure biobank in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown. The aim is to provide the proper means of storage for these hazardous samples and to allow them to remain in-country, with Sierra Leonean ownership.
However, it is already more three years since the emergency was declared over by the then director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, and the biobank and its associated laboratory are yet to be fully operational.
There are many understandable reasons for this delay, including the critical issue of how best to ensure the sustainability of any new facility. But what is clear is that these solutions take time to implement and must be planned for in advance.
The difficulties of responding to an outbreak in a conflict zone have been well documented, and the frequent violence in DRC has undoubtedly caused delays in controlling the outbreak. According to figures from WHO, during 2019 approximately 390 attacks on health facilities in DRC killed 11 and injured 83 healthcare workers and patients.
Not only does the conflict inhibit the response, but it could also increase the risk posed by unsecured samples. There are two main potential concerns.
First is the risk of accidental release during an attack on a health facility, under which circumstances sample containers may be compromised or destroyed. Second is that the samples may be stolen for malicious use or to sell them to a third-party for malicious use. It is very important in all outbreaks to ensure the necessary measures are in place to secure samples; in conflict-affected areas, this is particularly challenging.
The sooner the samples in the DRC are secured, the sooner this risk to global biosecurity is reduced. And preparations for the next emergency must be made without further delay.
The following steps need to be taken:
Affected countries must 'own' the problem, with clear national government commitment to take the required actions.
Funding partners must coordinate their actions and work closely with the countries to find the best solutions.
If samples are to be kept in-country, secure biobanks must be established to contain them.
Sustainable infrastructure must be built for samples to be kept secure into the future.
An international agreement should be reached on the best approach to take to prepare for the aftermath of global health emergencies.
Central Africa and the Great Lakes Global Health
Professor David R Harper CBE
Senior Consulting Fellow, Global Health Programme
Research Analyst, Global Health Programme