No one said tracking the movements of a patient, suspected to be a carrier of the deadly Ebola virus, through the dense forests of the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was going to be easy.
With no discernible roads, only dense bush, we were forced to travel on three motorbikes to get to our destination, riding through areas where no car could reach.
There were six of us: a research investigator, a medical doctor, an officer monitoring water, sanitation, safety and security and the three motorbike drivers. After almost three hours we finally found our destination: a village in the middle of the forest. This was Bokongo.
It took our epidemiologist several days to find this remote village. He was tracing the travels and contacts of just one patient suspected of having Ebola. Just before the epidemiologist broke his leg, he identified some contacts and first line workers that needed to receive the Ebola vaccine.
After arriving in Bokongo we managed to vaccinate 13 first line workers. But ours was not the only operation.
As health authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to try and contain the Ebola outbreak in the north eastern region of the country, there are several teams vaccinating targeted populations in Bikoro, Ikoko-Impenge, Itipo, Mbandaka and Iboko.
The country’s health ministry has stepped in to coordinate the response to the outbreak. And the World Health Organization, Médecins Sans Frontières, Epicentre and others organisations have sent teams of specialists to assist.
As a result more than 1500 people have been vaccinated so far. But already 27 people have died since the outbreak was declared on May 8, 2018. Ours is a race against time – making sure we get to everyone who could possibly be infected before the deadly virus does.
Part of the team
It’s not the first time that I have been part of an Ebola response. As the African representative of Epicentre – the research arm of Médecins Sans Frontières – I have been involved in Ebola response since 2012 during the Kibaale outbreak in Uganda.
At the time I led Epicentre’s Mbarara Research Centre. Then I coordinated the field and laboratory part of the clinical trial assessing vaccine’s efficacy, safety and performance on first line workers in Guinea during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 to 2015.
The vaccine was also considered during the 2017 outbreak in Likati in the DRC. But the Likati Ebola outbreak ended with a limited number of cases and the vaccine didn’t have to be used.
With the current outbreak in the DRC I came to the capital city, Kinshasa, two days after the outbreak was officially declared to assess the situation and see whether or not the vaccine could be part of the response.
The increasing number of cases and the fact that the outbreak had reached an urban area (Mbandaka) meant it was clear that the vaccine would be an additional tool for the response.
Testing a new vaccine
The vaccination is administered using a “ring” approach. This involves identifying newly diagnosed and laboratory confirmed Ebola patients. Epidemiologists first need to locate the people they have been in contact with. And then the patients and their contacts -— often family members, neighbours, colleagues and friends -— constitute the ring who all get vaccinated. First line workers from the health area where an Ebola case has been detected also qualify to receive the vaccine.
This method of investigating contacts is one of the biggest challenges when administering the vaccine. Tracing and following people to the middle of the forest presents a massive logistic challenge – which means that it can take days to find people who need the vaccine most.
The Ebola vaccine is known as a recombinant vaccine. This means that the glycoprotein of the Ebola virus has replaced the glycoprotein of another virus. The glycoprotein is important because it builds antibodies against a virus. Ebola’s glycoprotein was added to the vesicular stomatitis virus, which is not harmful to humans. People are given the vaccination so that they can immediately build antibodies against the Ebola virus.
The vaccine was discovered by a small Canadian company and later bought by the big pharmaceutical company Merck. The vaccine is still not licensed but it’s known as VP920.
Several studies across the US, Switzerland, Gabon and Kenya have assessed the safety of the vaccine which targets the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus.
Its safety, efficacy and immunogenicity was also assessed during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014; the results have shown great safety efficacy and effectiveness. The vaccine is still in the process of being registered – but this is a really long procedure.
One of my primary responsibilities has been ensuring that the teams that administer the vaccine have everything we need in this process. I’ve also coordinated our activities with health officials, the WHO and the country’s extended programme for immunisation so that they understand how the vaccine is administered.
To launch the vaccine in this outbreak we’ve had to train the locally recruited staff about Ebola, the study protocol as well as good clinical practices. This includes ensuring everyone who gets the vaccine consents to it, understands the study and possible side effects.
This has been difficult because we only have a limited time to teach people about the dangers of the virus as well as the importance of the protocols when they are out in the field.
While the WHO team started administering the vaccine in Mbandaka, the MSF/Epicentre team went in Bikoro where all the confirmed cases from Itipo – the epicentre of the outbreak – were referred.
Since then vaccination drives have not stopped. Each time we enter a village we’re greeted by one of the most frightening moments knowing that we’re surrounded by people who have been in contact with the deadly virus but may not have been traced. But then we look into the eyes of the people full of hope and we’re reminded about why we do what we do: to make a difference by reaching the unreachable.
China has opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever in what analysts took to signal a warming of relations between the world's two biggest economies after a frosty year marked by tensions and tit-for-tat tariffs.
The green light from Chinese customs, indicated in a statement posted on the customs authority's website on Friday, comes in the run-up to talks between the countries in January after U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a moratorium on higher tariffs that would affect trade worth hundred of billions of dollars.
It was not immediately clear how much rice China, which sources rice imports from within Asia, might seek to buy from the United States. But the move, which comes after years of talks on the matter, follows pledges from China's commerce ministry of further U.S. trade openings earlier this week.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see importers trying to move rice into China from California but I don't know if it will be in breathtaking quantities right away," said Stuart Hoetger, an analyst and physical rice trader based in California.
As of Dec. 27, imports of brown rice, polished rice and crushed rice from the United States are now permitted, as long as cargoes meet China's inspection standards and are registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA on Dec. 11 forecast U.S. rice production at 6.93 million tonnes while Chinese rice imports were estimated at 5 million tonnes. Rice makes up only a small portion of U.S. agricultural exports, which are dominated by shipments of soybeans, grain, tree nuts and meat.
U.S. rice futures had little reaction to the announcement, declining by 7 cents to $10.06 per cwt.
"The permission for U.S. rice suggests an improving U.S. and China relationship," said Cherry Zhang, an agriculture analyst with consultancy JCI. Zhang said she expected any imports would likely be ordered by state-owned companies.
Officials at a government-affiliated think tank in Beijing said the price of U.S. rice was not competitive, compared with imports from South Asia, and said the move to formally permit imports from the United States should be interpreted as a goodwill gesture. China opened its rice market when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, but a lack of phytosanitary protocol between China and the United States effectively banned imports, according to trade group USA Rice.
Nonetheless, in July China formally imposed additional tariffs of 25 percent on U.S. rice, even though imports were not permitted at the time.
Democratic Republic of Congo’s government cut internet connections and SMS services across the country for a second straight day on Tuesday as the country nervously awaited results from the weekend’s chaotic presidential election.
Both the opposition and ruling coaltion said on Monday they were on track to win after a turbulent election day on Sunday in which many Congolese were unable to vote due to an Ebola outbreak, conflict and logistical problems.
Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi, a senior adviser to President Joseph Kabila, said internet and SMS services were cut to preserve public order after “fictitious results” began circulating on social media.
“That could lead us straight toward chaos,” Kikaya told Reuters, adding the connections would remain cut until the publication of complete results on Jan. 6.
The signal to Radio France Internationale (RFI), one of the most popular news sources in Congo, was also down, and the government withdrew the accreditation of RFI’s main correspondent in the country late on Monday for having aired unofficial results from the opposition.
The various moves reflected high tensions in Congo, where the long-delayed election was meant to choose a successor to Kabila, who is due to step down next month after 18 years in power - and two years after the official end of his mandate.
Congo has never seen a democratic transfer of power, and any disputed outcome could lead to a repeat of the violence that followed the 2006 and 2011 elections and a wider security breakdown in its volatile eastern provinces.
The opposition says the election was marred by fraud and accused Kabila of planning to rule from the sidelines through his preferred candidate, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Internal U.N. reports, seen by Reuters, noted allegations of irregularities across the country. In some parts of eastern Congo’s North Kivu province, for example, militia fighters reportedly forced voters to select candidates from the ruling coalition, they said.
In other places, the United Nations received reports that security forces intimidated voters to choose ruling coalition candidates.
The government and national electoral commission (CENI) said the election was fair and that any problems were minor.
FEARS OF VIOLENCE
In the eastern city of Goma, residents were on edge as they awaited the results.
“If the results during the publication of the presidential results don’t reflect the truth ... trouble will break out across the city,” said Fabrice Shweka, a Goma resident. The first partial results were initially expected on Tuesday but CENI spokesman Jean-Pierre Kalamba said that they would not be ready until around Friday.
“We don’t want to release too many voting trends (before Jan. 6) because in our country we don’t have a population that has the same understanding (of electoral practice as in Europe),” he told Reuters.
In a statement late on Monday, the embassies in Congo of the European United, United States and several other countries called for calm and urged the government to restore internet access. Shadary faced off in Sunday’s poll against two main opposition challengers, Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu, both of whom opinion polls before the vote showed running ahead of Shadary.
Fayulu complained in a statement on Monday about irregularities during Sunday’s vote but said he was encouraged by the determination of Congolese to vote despite long queues and voting machines that broke down.
“I call for vigilance across the board and the general mobilisation of all Congolese so that the truth of the ballot box, the sole witness to the will of the Congolese people, can reward their efforts and sacrifices,” he said.
Oil markets slid by around one percent in 2019's first trading on Wednesday, pulled down by surging output in the United States and Russia and concerns about on an economic slowdown, especially in Asia's main growth region of China.
Brent crude futures were at $53.22 per barrel at 0745 GMT, down 58 cents, or 1.1 percent, from their final close of 2018. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were at $44.89 per barrel, down 52 cents, or 1.2 percent.
Factory activity weakened in December across Asia as the Sino-U.S. trade war and a slowdown in Chinese demand hit production in most economies, pointing to a rocky start for the world's top economic growth region in 2019.
China on Wednesday cut its first batch of crude import quotas for 2019 versus those a year ago. The Ministry of Commerce granted quotas totalling 89.84 million tonnes in its first allowances for 2019, down from 121.32 million tonnes issued in the first batch of 2018.
Independent market analyst Greg McKenna said in a note on Wednesday that it was "difficult for traders and investors to ignore what looks like a genuine global economic slowdown."
That is also impacting sentiment in oil markets. Oil prices ended 2018 lower for the first time since 2015, after a desultory fourth quarter that saw buyers flee the market over growing worries about too much supply and mixed signals related to renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran.
"Oil prices ... registered their first yearly decline in three years on fears of a slowing global economy and concerns of an ongoing supply glut," said Adeel Minhas, a consultant at Australia's Rivkin Securities.
For the year, WTI futures slumped nearly 25 percent, while Brent tumbled nearly 20 percent.
'DON'T UNDERESTIMATE SHALE'
The outlook for 2019 is riddled with uncertainty, analysts said, including the U.S.-China trade concerns and Brexit, as well as political instability and conflict in the Middle East.
A Reuters poll showed oil prices are expected to trade below $70 per barrel in 2019 as surplus production, much of it from the United States, and slowing economic growth undermine efforts led by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut supply and prop up prices.
On the production side, all eyes will be on the ongoing surge in U.S. output and on OPEC's and Russia's supply discipline.
"Don't underestimate shale producers and the wider U.S. oil industry in general. Too often this year the market pushed stories ... of bottlenecks yet U.S. oil production will have grown by a massive 2+ million barrels per day between 1.1.2018 and 1.1.2019," consultancy JBC Energy said in an analysis of 2018.
U.S. crude output rose to an all-time high of 11.537 million bpd in October, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said on Monday.
That makes the United States the world's biggest oil producer ahead of Russia, which said on Wednesday it's own oil production in December hit a record 11.45 million bpd in December, up from a previous record of 11.37 million bpd in November.
In Nigeria, crude oil production stood at 2.09 million in 2018 compared with 1.86 million bpd the year before, the state oil firm said in a statement emailed on Wednesday.
ZIMBABWE’S revenue collections surpassed $5 billion after a tax increase on electronic transfers buoyed December collections to peak at $572,4 million, official data has shown.
In a bid to shore up depleted government coffers, authorities in Harare increased the tax on intermediated money transfer to 2% per transaction from the initial charge of one cent per dollar transacted.
According to the Information ministry, the tax saw collections reach $572,4 million as at December 26, surpassing the monthly target of $129,1 million.
By November, the tax agency had already met this year’s revenue target of $4,7 billion.
Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) commissioner-general Faith Mazani said earlier this month that revenue collection had been consistently above target from January to November 2018 on the back of various interventions aimed at maximising collections.
Last year, the actual gross revenue collections totalled $3,978 billion, ahead of the target of $3,4 billion by $350 million. The 2% tax has been an emotive subject for most Zimbabweans who are already overtaxed and have to carry the burden of sustaining a wasteful government.
Zimbabwe’s government is solely funded from tax revenue.
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube has, however, justified the tax increase, pointing out that Treasury will channel the revenue towards the development of public infrastructure.
With recurrent expenditure taking up more than 90% of government revenues, the country has not made any meaningful investment in public infrastructure.
According to official data, over the last 17 years, government has spent a paltry US$180 million towards the maintenance and development of public infrastructure, but Ncube is upbeat that the unpopular tax will shore up government coffers to allow for meaningful investment towards infrastructure.
For 2018, government had a $748 million budget for capital projects.
The figure, according to Ncube, is set to increase to $2,6 billion — $1,1 billion coming from the budget and $1,5 billion off budget. Development partners are expected to contribute $99,4 million of the off-budget financing, which will be mostly targeted at energy, water, transport and irrigation, while statutory and public entities’ own resources will contribute $390 million.
Government officials have also indicated that the money will be used to service debt and to finance the recruitment of primary and secondary school teachers. Government is looking to employ up to 3 000 teachers as well as 351 new teaching and non-teaching staff for State universities.
The country’s once revered education system has come under heavy strain over the years as the economy continues to weaken. Staffing levels in mostly rural schools have plunged with teacher to pupil ratios being as high as 1:50 in some cases, while infrastructure has deteriorated.