Daniel Bausch was watching a hockey game in Geneva with his kids last year when his phone started buzzing with messages from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the death toll was mounting from the second-biggest Ebola epidemic in history.
A member of Bausch’s special unit of disease detectives said he’d been forced to take cover as gunfire erupted in a rebel attack next to his hotel. It was another sign of the risks in the urgent, months-long effort to contain the outbreak that has now claimed more than 1,400 lives.
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When health crises emerge, the U.K.’s Public Health Rapid Support Team responds. Backed by 20 million pounds ($25 million) from the British government, the group can mobilize infectious disease specialists around the globe within 48 hours of being called. Equipped with bags full of mosquito nets, first-aid kits, pop-up tents, medication, extra food and other supplies, they’re ready to go at any time.
“You need to expect the unexpected,” said Olivier le Polain, a senior epidemiologist dispatched to Congo soon after the first cases were confirmed last August. “Every emergency has its own challenges.”
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates described them in an April blog post as a “heroic super-group of scientists” who rush to outbreak zones to help governments stop dangerous viruses. Le Polain puts it more modestly: The squad of data experts, microbiologists and other disease trackers aims to plug technical gaps, just one part of a much wider response that includes doctors, nurses and relief groups on the ground.
The unit was set up after a West African Ebola crisis that began in 2013 killed more than 11,000 people. The first deployment came in early 2017, when the group was summoned to Ethiopia amid an escalating outbreak of acute diarrhea. Later, they traveled to Nigeria to track cases of meningitis, Madagascar to combat pneumonic plague and Bangladesh for an epidemic of diphtheria.
In eastern Congo, they’re facing their biggest test yet.
Although the use of a Merck & Co. vaccine has helped contain infections, and health officials have reported progress in some areas, the number of cases and deaths continue to climb. Attacks on health centers and lingering mistrust have hindered the response, allowing the virus to advance, and the outbreak this month spilled into neighboring Uganda.
The World Health Organization hasn’t formally declared an international emergency. Still, the agency called the situation an “extraordinary event” and appealed for $54 million in global support to sustain its response.
“It’s a race against time,” Bausch said. “The longer we have this smoldering outbreak, the more risk we have of losing control.”
While others treat patients and knock on doors, the U.K. scientists are crunching data to understand how Ebola has spread and whether attempts to quell the disease have been effective. They’ve shown how children face increased infection risk when they’re exposed to the virus in health centers, studied where people travel when they get ill, and helped determine the best way to deploy vaccines.