World Health Organization officials warned Tuesday that an “extremely, extremely dangerous” situation threatens public health after fighters in conflict-ravaged Sudan occupied a central national laboratory carrying samples of deadly diseases, including polio and cholera.
“There is a huge biological risk associated with the occupation of the central public health lab… by one of the fighting parties,” Nima Saeed Abid, the WHO’s representative in Sudan, told reporters in Geneva, observed by The Daily Mail.
Hundreds of civilians and paramilitary forces were killed or injured in a series of airstrikes in Khartoum last week as the Sudanese army bombed positions held by the country’s RSF paramilitary group in a power struggle that some international observers fear could ignite a full-blown civil war.
Abid said fighters took over the Khartoum laboratory in the African country and “kicked out all the technicians from the lab… which is completely under the control of one of the fighting parties as a military base,” NBC reported. However, the health official did not specify which of the two warring factions gained control of the public health facility.
Abid sounded the alarm, noting that the lab carries a range of deadly diseases, including measles, polio, and cholera while warning chemical and bio-risk hazards also pose a high risk due to a lack of functioning generators.
The head of Khartoum’s national lab reportedly broke the news to Abid on Monday via phone call, one day before both military groups agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire following “intense” negotiations brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
World Health officials reported on Tuesday that the Sudanese health ministry had tallied at least 459 deaths and over 4,000 others injured. Five deaths included aid workers from two United Nations agencies: the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Programme. Both groups have since suspended their operations.
“In areas where intense fighting has hampered our humanitarian operations, we have been forced to reduce our footprint,” Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the United Nations humanitarian office, said. “But we are committed to continue to deliver for the people of Sudan,” adding the team would lead humanitarian operations out of Port Sudan after transferring from Khartoum.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it’s bracing for approximately 270,000 people to flee Sudan into neighboring countries after thousands have escaped.
The Biden administration defended the State Department’s decision this week to evacuate embassy personnel from Sudan while taking limited steps to aid thousands of Americans thought to still be in the country.
The U.S. Department of State has estimated that 16,000 Americans remain in Sudan. Still, the government does not have a firm count because Americans living or traveling abroad are not required to check in or make their plans known to the U.S. government.
Still, officials said they have refrained from launching broader evacuation efforts for Americans in Sudan because of the region’s instability.
Blinken said that many Americans currently in Sudan are dual citizens who do not want to leave the country despite its deteriorating conditions.
“The overwhelming majority of Americans citizens in Sudan are dual nationals who made their lives there, who have been living there for years, decades, for generations, and many want to continue to do that,” he said. “But for those who are seeking to leave, we will continue to engage directly with them to see what we can do to help them, and, like I said, with allies and partners as well to help facilitate their departure.”
Tim Pearce and Zach Jewell contributed to this report.