Ebola Response Marred by Errors, Feuds, AP Finds

San Francisco-based risk analytics firm Metabiota Inc., which has been awarded millions of dollars to track emerging epidemics, made a series of costly mistakes during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Associated Press reports.

Metabiota was tapped by the government of Sierra Leone and the World Health Organization to help monitor the spread of the virus and support emergency response efforts in the region after the first Ebola cases emerged in Guinea in March 2014. According to e-mails obtained by AP and interviews with aid workers, however, Metabiota employees feuded with fellow responders, contributed to the misdiagnosis of cases, and consistently misread the trajectory of the outbreak.

When, for example, Jean-Paul Gonzalez, a senior Metabiota scientist at the government lab Metabiota shared with Tulane University in Kenema, the country's third-largest city, posted in May 2014 that preparedness work had "ultimately protected, or at least uniquely prepared, Sierra Leone," suspected infections were being reported inside the country and, within weeks, the local hospital was overwhelmed by Ebola patients. Later, in mid-July, a Canadian health official found worrying discrepancies in four of eight tests and identified up to five people misdiagnosed with Ebola; he was also told by a Metabiota project coordinator that the outbreak would be over in "two or three weeks." And in a separate July e-mail to colleagues, WHO outbreak expert Eric Bertherat complained of misdiagnoses and "total confusion" at the lab, noting that there was "no tracking of the samples" and "absolutely no control on what is being done."

The situation in Kenema mirrored wider mismanagement of the Ebola response, the AP reports, with WHO slow to issue an alert and to put together a decisive, coordinated effort. In a series of July 2014 e-mails, WHO staff were equally critical of Tulane and Metabiota, with Bertherat suggesting that the shared lab be shut down and a Geneva-based staffer alerting WHO chief Margaret Chan that "both labs do not meet international standards for [b]iosecurity." U.S. health official Austin Demby, who evaluated the lab's work at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the government of Sierra Leone, said the lab lacked the equipment and space to process blood samples safely, and that initial diagnostic tests by Metabiota and Tulane clashed as often as 30 percent of the time. WHO Ebola coordinator Philippe Barboza subsequently complained in an email that  Metabiota staffers were "systematically obstructing any attempt to improve the existing surveillance system and there are a lot of improvement(s) needed," further arguing that WHO should pull its staff from Kenema so they wouldn't be blamed for Metabiota's failures. Eventually the company was relieved of its testing duties and the CDC took over.

Metabiota founder and CEO Nathan Wolfe told the AP there was no evidence to support the charges of lab blunders, that the reported squabbles were overblown, and that any predictions made by his employees didn't reflect the company's position, adding that some of the problems flagged were simple misunderstandings, while others were concocted by commercial rivals. "It is inaccurate to suggest a major conflict between WHO and Metabiota," said Wolfe, noting that Bangura was awarded a Sierra Leonean presidential silver medal for his role in leading the Ebola response.

Metabiota and its nonprofit sister company, Global Viral, have received millions in funding from USAID, Google, and the Skoll Foundation, among others, while the Department of Defense has awarded more than $18 million in contracts to the firm. In December 2014, the company won a European Union grant to help validate new tests and treatments for the Ebola virus, which a company official said was in recognition of "the critical contributions our team has made in supporting the current outbreak."

Maria Cheng, Raphael Satter. "AP Investigation: American Company Bungled Ebola Response." Associated Press 03/07/2016.