Three scientists at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML), equipped with a "lab in a suitcase," are flying to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday to help contain an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
The scientists are responding for help from the central African nation and the World Health Organization. Their task is to help health workers rapidly distinguish cases of Ebola from other illnesses so that patients can be treated quickly.
"It makes a big difference if you can have the turnaround of a lab result in a few hours in the field as opposed to a few weeks," said Dr. Frank Plummer, scientific director general of the NML.
He told a press briefing Friday the city lab has a capability "unique in the world" to deploy sophisticated lab testing equipment and personnel to remote regions.
The three-person team, led by Dr. Gary Kobinger, will remain in the Congo for three to four weeks. They will be relieved by other NML teams as needed, officials said.
The death toll so far from the Ebola outbreak is more than 30.
Kobinger, the NML’s chief of special pathogens, said the team’s portable lab is so compact it can be packed as luggage on a commercial flight. It’s not the first time the lab’s scientists have rushed to battle serious diseases in faraway locations.
"We have extensive field experience, and that’s why we were asked to contribute to this effort," Kobinger said.
He described the health risk to team members as "minimal."
Earlier this year, Kobinger and other NML scientists announced a groundbreaking discovery in the treatment of Ebola. They said they had isolated antibodies to the Ebola virus and produced a drug that had been found to be 100 per cent effective — in test animals — when used within 24 hours of exposure to the virus. But Kobinger said Friday that the new vaccine’s development was still at the "experimental" stage and that it would be premature to administer it at this time. He said the Winnipeg team would focus solely on disease diagnosis.
Ebola was first identified in 1976 in Sudan and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). About 1,850 cases have been documented, with more than 1,200 deaths. It is transmitted by direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected persons.