A World Health Organization (WHO) official warned on Tuesday that there was a “huge biological risk” in the capital of Sudan after one of the fighting parties took control of a laboratory containing samples of deadly diseases.
Dr. Nima Saeed Abid, the WHO’s representative in Sudan, told a United Nations briefing in Geneva via video link from Port Sudan that the central public health laboratory in Khartoum—which stores disease pathogens for polio, among others—has been seized by armed forces and technicians are unable to secure the hazardous materials after being removed from the building.
Abid expressed concerns that fighters “kicked out all of the technicians” from the laboratory, adding that he believes the building is now completely under the control of one of the fighting parties as a military base.
Abid did not say which of the fighting sides had taken over the laboratory, which also reportedly contains a major blood bank.
“That is extremely, extremely dangerous because we have polio isolates in the lab. We have measles isolates in the lab. We have cholera isolates in the lab,” Abid said. “There is a huge biological risk associated with the occupation of the central public health lab in Khartoum by one of the fighting parties.”
The expulsion of technicians and power cuts in the Sudanese capital means “it is not possible to properly manage the biological materials that are stored in the lab for medical purposes,” the WHO said.
The lab is located in central Khartoum, close to flashpoints of the fighting that pits Sudan’s military against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group that grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias implicated in atrocities in the Darfur conflict.
The announcement comes as the ongoing conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and RSF was paused temporarily after both sides agreed to a three-day ceasefire.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Monday that the nationwide ceasefire between the army and paramilitary group will begin at midnight local time and follows “intense negotiations over the past 48 hours.”
While previous attempts at a temporary ceasefire between the two rival groups have failed, officials hope the latest pause to the fighting will serve as the basis for negotiations regarding a permanent end to the conflict.
On Tuesday, a Reuters witness reportedly heard sporadic gunfire in the city of Omdurman, adjacent to the capital, the outlet reported. Explosions were also reported in Bahri, across the Nile.
The latest ceasefire is the fourth effort to stop the fighting since the Sudan conflict started on April 15. The fighting mainly impacts the capital city and the Darfur region, where numerous hospitals have shuttered, according to the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate.
“If the violence does not stop, there is a danger that the health system will collapse,” the U.N. agency warned last week.
Death Toll Rises
Health officials have warned that critical life-saving care for an estimated 50,000 severely malnourished children has been disrupted by the fighting in the country, which already has some of the highest malnutrition rates among children in the world.
Meanwhile, the warfare has also prompted multiple countries, including the United States, to evacuate their diplomatic staff and shut down their embassies.
The WHO said more than 450 people have been killed in the fighting and at least 4,000 wounded. The conflict has also destroyed hospitals, limited food distribution, and cut power supplies in a nation already reliant on aid for an estimated third of its population—or about 16 million people, according to U.N. figures.
“The humanitarian needs in Sudan were already at record levels before this recent eruption of fighting … some 15.8 million people—that’s about a third of the population—required humanitarian assistance,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.