What We Know About the 2021 Ebola Outbreaks

A medical worker checks the quarantine area of the Matanda Hospital in Butembo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: Al-hadji Kudra Maliro/AP/Shutterstock

As the world approaches the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, another viral threat is emerging again in Africa. On February 7, the Democratic Republic of the Congo confirmed four cases of Ebola. A week later, Guinea declared an Ebola epidemic, with five people dead and five others infected since February 1.

The developments have put the West and Central African nations on alert, five years after the end of the world’s deadliest-ever Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,300 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea between between 2014 and 2016. Below is everything you need to know about the outbreaks — which are not linked, according to public-health experts.

When did the outbreak in Guinea occur?

Health officials report that the outbreak occurred in the town of Gouécké in southern Guinea, about 100 kilometers from the borders of Liberia and the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire. According to Guinea’s minister of health, seven of those were infected had participated in a funeral for a nurse on February 1. As of February 15, two of those patients had died and the other four have been hospitalized. A total of five patients have died from the virus, while five others are begin treated in an isolation center.

To coordinate to stop the potential spread of the virus, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Mio met with Guinean President Alpha Conde. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent has also activated teams of over 2,500 volunteers to provide contact tracing and other forms of support.

When did the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo occur?

On February 7, public-health officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced they had confirmed four cases of Ebola in Butembo, a city in the northeastern portion of the massive central African nation. As of the second week of the crisis, two of the patients had died.

As the former epicenter of the outbreak declared in June 2020, the city of around 1 million people already has the infrastructure in place to quickly treat the development. Already, the DRC is vaccinating hospital workers treating the new Ebola patients.

DRC health officials have confirmed that the cases are not linked to a new Ebola variant. But “as for the infection, we’re not yet able to identify its origin,” notes provincial health minister Eugene Nzanzu Salita.” Between 2018 and 2020, the virus killed over 2,200 people in the DRC.

How has the World Health Organization responded?

On February 14, the WHO’s top emergency expert Mike Ryan said that the Ebola outbreaks represent a “regional risk,” adding that the affected nations and the international community must be “exceptionally vigilant [and] highly alert” to stop the spread of the virus.

The WHO has also asked six West African countries to be on alert for potential Ebola infections: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The WHO also states that gene sequencing of Ebola samples from both outbreaks are underway to determine the strains.

How has the U.S. responded?

On February 16, White House press secretary Jen Psaki wrote in a statement that the global community “must do everything in our power to respond quickly, effectively, and with commensurate resources to stop these outbreaks before they become large-scale epidemics.” She added that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has spoken with ambassadors from Guinea, the DRC, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to ““to convey the United States’ willingness to work closely” with these countries.

What about an Ebola vaccine?

Several Ebola vaccines have been developed, including candidates from Johnson & Johnson and Merck. In January, the WHO announced that it would develop an emergency stockpile of 500,000 doses to stamp out future outbreaks, though at the time only 7,000 shots were available.

In prior outbreaks of Ebola, including the 2018-2020 crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, vaccinations helped stop the spread of infections. Though Ebola has an average case fatality rate of 50 percent according to the WHO, it is spread through contact with body fluids and is not transmitted by asymptomatic carriers.

What We Know About the 2021 Ebola Outbreaks