Saturday August 18, 2018

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

'Teams on alert'

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

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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Doctors Discovered Antibodies to Fight Ebola

Scientists are hopeful that that therapeutic antibodies could be the best way to stop this virus.

Health care workers from the World Health Organization prepare to give an Ebola vaccination to a front-line aid worker in Beni, Democratic Republic of the Congo. VOA

In 1995, a patient sick with the Ebola virus, in what was then called Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, miraculously recovered from this deadly disease. At that time, when the virus first jumped from animals to man, Ebola meant almost certain death.

Doctors found that this patient had antibodies to fight the virus in his bloodstream even after he recovered.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, invited the patient to the U.S., where researchers cloned the cell that had helped him beat Ebola.

“We brought the person back to the United States to draw his blood and try to clone the B cells that make the antibodies that this person had produced … to then, essentially, clear his virus and, hopefully, protect him against any future exposure,” Fauci told VOA.

Because the NIH scientists made numerous copies of that cell, it is called a monoclonal antibody — in this case, mAB114. It’s hoped that it can be used to target the Zaire strain of Ebola currently spreading in eastern Congo.

Fauci said mAB114 is still experimental.

“We have done a number of tests in an animal model and have shown that when you infect an animal up to five days after they become infected, and you passively transfer this antibody, you can actually protect the animals from getting sick and they recover,” he said.

Not all treatments that work in animals work in humans, something Fauci knows all too well. One treatment for HIV/AIDS that Fauci found worked well in monkeys had disastrous effects when tested in humans.

Fauci’s staff is conducting a phase one clinical trial in volunteers at the NIH hospital to make sure mAB114 is safe. So far, no one can say whether the treatment works, but because of the dire situation in Congo, and the fear the virus will spread in the armed conflict that is going on in the region, Fauci said the antibody has been given to five people with Ebola.

Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference after an emergency committee meeting on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, VOA

At a news conference Tuesday, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said he had been told they were doing well.

As of now, there’s no approved treatment for the disease, although there is a vaccine that protects people who may have been exposed to the virus but who are not sick.

Other experimental treatments are also being used to help end the outbreak in Congo. One of them is ZMapp, a combination of three monoclonal antibodies. In 2016, NIH found ZMapp safe and well-tolerated, but without an outbreak, it is impossible to prove effectiveness.

Fauci said another antiviral drug, remdesivir, is being used in patients with Ebola from West Africa, even though that outbreak is over. Scientists have found the Ebola virus can remain in the semen, so men are being treated to prevent further spread.

Also Read: HPV Vaccones are Effective, Especially for Teens

Remdesivir, or GS-5734, is produced by Gilead. On its website, Gilead says remdesivir is thought to work by blocking a key enzyme the virus needs to reproduce itself. Tomas Cihlar, Gilead’s vice president for biology, is quoted as saying, “Based on animal studies, we believe that the compound is able to penetrate the organs and tissues throughout the body where Ebola replicates.”

So far, there are no proven treatments for Ebola. Scientists are hopeful that that therapeutic antibodies could be the best way to stop this virus. An international study led by Scripps Research suggests that antibodies may be valuable treatments against new viruses and could help a patient’s immune system fight the Ebola virus after being infected. (VOA)