The Biden administration is moving forward with plans to screen airline passengers from two African countries arriving in the U.S. for Ebola, which will involve sending them to one of about a half dozen designated airports, Yahoo News has learned.
The Department of Homeland Security would, under the plan, send passengers from Guinea and Democratic Republic of the Congo to five or six airports where data will be collected for contact tracing and they will undergo basic health screenings.
The precise details of the screenings are still being worked out and are under discussion at the White House and National Security Council. If approved, they are expected to go into effect in the next 24 hours. The White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Feb. 17, the World Health Organization reported a cluster of Ebola cases in Guinea. Out of seven reported cases, five people died; the other two are in isolation in dedicated health care facilities. The specific Ebolavirus species is not yet determined, the WHO reported at the time. As of Feb. 15, 192 contacts had been identified.
The WHO “considers the risk of spread in the country as very high given the unknown size, duration and origin of the outbreak; potentially large number of contacts; potential spread to other parts of Guinea and neighboring countries; limited response capacity currently on the ground; and unknown virus strain,” according to a bulletin circulated to U.S. government agencies on Feb. 18.
All six nations bordering Guinea are finalizing their national preparedness and readiness operational plans, according to the WHO. The overall state of readiness in the six countries, according to a WHO readiness assessment tool, is nearly 66 percent, which is still lower than the benchmark of 80 percent.
“We’ve learned the hard lessons of history, and we know with Ebola and other health emergencies, preparedness works. It’s act now or pay later in lives lost and economies ruined. Systematic surveillance, comprehensive preparations and strong, cross-border coordination are crucial to detecting any cases and ensuring that they are quickly isolated, treated and that vaccination of high-risk contacts begin quickly,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa.
A separate WHO alert, sent out on Feb. 11, detailed reports of Ebola outbreaks in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since 2017 there have been five outbreaks in Congo, including one that raged from 2018 to 2020, causing nearly 2,300 deaths. The current outbreak is occurring in the same region.
The news comes less than six months after the previous U.S. administration ended similar measures for COVID-19, deeming them to be of little use in controlling the spread of the virus. Before the reversal, international passengers were funneled through 15 airports and went through basic health screenings, including a temperature check.
Since Ebola viruses were first identified in 1976, more than 20 known outbreaks of the disease have been identified in sub-Saharan Africa, including in Sudan, Uganda and Gabon. The 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa was the largest, resulting in more than 28,000 cases and more than 11,000 deaths — a case fatality rate of about 63 percent.