Wednesday October 24, 2018

Ultra-Secure Lab In Gabon To Handle World’s Most Dangerous Viruses

'Teams on alert'

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Dr. Mombo dons his white coat as he prepares to analyse samples at the Franceville International Centre of Medical Research (CIRMF) is seen on June 12, 2018 in Franceville.
Dr. Mombo dons his white coat as he prepares to analyse samples at the Franceville International Centre of Medical Research (CIRMF) is seen on June 12, 2018 in Franceville. VOA
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At a research facility in Gabon, one isolated building stands behind an electrified fence, under round-the-clock scrutiny by video cameras. The locked-down P4 lab is built to handle the world’s most dangerous viruses, including Ebola.

“Only four people, three researchers and a technician, are authorized to go inside the P4,” said virologist Illich Mombo, who is in charge of the lab, one of only two in all of Africa that is authorized to handle deadly Ebola, Marburg and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever viruses. The other is in Johannesburg.

The P4 was put up 800 metres (half a mile) distant from older buildings of the Franceville International Centre for Medical Research (CIRMF), in large grounds on the outskirts of Franceville, the chief city in the southeastern Haut-Ogooue province.

Filming the ultra-high-security lab or even taking photos is banned and the handful of people allowed inside have security badges. Backup power plants ensure an uninterruptable electricity supply. “Even the air that we breathe is filtered,” Mombo explains.

When he goes into the P4 lab to work on a sample of suspect virus such as Ebola — which has claimed 28 lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during an outbreak in the past six weeks — Mombo wears a head-to-foot biohazard suit.

The special clothing is destroyed as soon as he has finished. Draconian measures are in force to prevent any risk of contamination, with potentially disastrous effects.

Ebola Virus, Treatment
Ebola Virus, Treatment, Pixabay

‘Teams on alert’

Once a suspect virus has been “inactivated” — a technique that stops the sample from being contagious — it is carefully taken from the P4 unit to other CIRMF laboratories in the compound, where it is analysed.

Specialized teams will scrutinize it, looking to confirm its strain of Ebola and hunting for clues such as the virus’s ancestry and evolution, which are vital for tracking the spread of the disease.

CIRMF director Jean-Sylvain Koumba, a colonel in the Gabonese army and a military doctor, said lab teams had been “placed on alert” to handle Ebola samples sent on by the National Institute of Biomedical Resarch in the DRC capital Kinshasa.

The nature of the sample can be determined with rare precision, for the facility has state-of-the-art equipment matched in few other places worldwide.

“On average, it takes 24 to 48 hours between the time when a sample arrives and when we get the results,” Mombo said.

Founded in 1979 by Gabon’s late president Omar Bongo Ondimba to study national fertility rates, the CIRMF moved on to AIDS, malaria, cancer, viral diseases and the neglected tropical maladies that affect a billion people around the world, according to the WHO.

The center is financed by the Gabonese state, whose main wealth is derived from oil exports, and gets help from France.

In all, 150 people work for the CIRMF and live on the huge premises. Its reputation draws scientists, students and apprentices from Asia, Europe and the United States, as well as Africa.

“[The] CIRMF is uniquely suited to study infectious diseases of the Congolese tropical rain forest, the second world’s largest rain forest,” two French scientists, Eric Leroy and Jean-Paul Gonzalez, wrote in the specialist journal Viruses in 2012.

“[It] is dedicated to conduct medical research of the highest standard … with unrivaled infrastructure, multiple sites and multidisciplinary teams.”

African child suffering from Malaria and ebola
African child suffering from Malaria and ebola, Pixabay

Animal ‘reservoir’?

The facility also conducts investigations into how lethal tropical pathogens are able to leap the species barrier, said Gael Darren Maganga, who helps run the unit studying the emergence of viral diseases.

“A passive watch consists of taking a sample from a dead animal after a request, while the active watch is when we go out ourselves to do fieldwork and take samples,” he said.

A major center of interest is the bat, seen as a potential “reservoir” — a natural haven — for the Ebola virus, said Maganga. Staff regularly go out all over Gabon to take samples of saliva, fecal matter and blood.

The consumption of monkey flesh and other bush meat is common practice in central Africa.

Also read: Vaccination Campaign Against Ebola Virus Launched In Democratic Republic of Congo

“It’s still a hypothesis, but the transmission to human beings could be by direct contact, for instance by getting scratches [from a bat] in caves, or by handling apes which have been infected by bat saliva,” he said. (VOA)

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Ebola Not A Global Health Emergency: WHO

WHO advised DRC's nine neighboring countries that they were at high risk of having the disease spread into their territories

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An emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization has decided that the Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo does not constitute a public health emergency of international concern.

The WHO said Wednesday that 216 cases of Ebola and 139 deaths had been reported, and its International Health Regulations Emergency Committee said the outbreak was a matter of serious concern, especially since it is occurring in an area of conflict in eastern DRC. It said this posed problems for health workers who need to move around freely and track people who are infected with the virus and need treatment.

But the committee said that one reason it did not regard the outbreak as a global threat was that the virus had not spread into neighboring countries.

Congo,ebola
A Congolese health worker administers Ebola vaccine to a boy who had contact with an Ebola sufferer in the village of Mangina in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. VOA

Committee Chairman Robert Steffan said the international response to the outbreak had been very good. He said WHO and other agencies had achieved quite a lot since the outbreak was declared Aug. 1. In fact, he said the disease was being brought under control in North Kivu province.

The disease is flaring up in another province, and the response is being concentrated in this area, he said, “so we do have some optimism that this outbreak, just like the one in May, will be brought under control within reasonable time.”

Steffan said the committee agreed that declaring an international emergency at this time would hinder efforts to contain the Ebola virus. He said a declaration would have implications for travel and trade, making it difficult for needed experts and supplies to access the affected areas.

Ebola, WHO
A health care worker from the World Health Organization, left, gives an Ebola vaccination to a front line aid worker who will then vaccinate people who might potentially have the virus, in Mbandaka, Congo. VOA

However, as a precaution, WHO recommended exit screenings, including at airports, ports and land crossings. But it noted that entry screenings, particularly in distant airports, would have no public health benefit and would be costly.

Also Read: North Kivu And Ituri, Congo To Welcome More Than 80,000 Children In This New School Year

WHO advised DRC’s nine neighboring countries that they were at high risk of having the disease spread into their territories, and it said it was supporting them with equipment and personnel. It said these preparedness activities were expensive and would require substantial financial support from the international community. (VOA)