10 Oct 2014

On the front line of Britain’s response to Ebola

Public Health England’s Porton Down laboratory is where the really nasty stuff ends up.

Pathogens that are too infectious or unusual for normal NHS labs to test are sent here. And that is why the Rare and Imported Pathogens Laboratory is at the front-line in Britain’s Ebola response.

The lab is now receiving one or two blood samples from suspected Ebola cases each day. It’s not a sign that there is any increased risk of Ebola being present in Britain – simply of greater vigilance. “That’s a good thing because it shows a high level of alertness in the system,” the head of the lab, Dr Tim Brooks, told me.

All samples are treated as potentially positive, though all have been negative since they re-tested the blood of British nurse William Pooley, who was repatriated after getting infected in August.

Working in a secure laboratory, triple-sealed packaging containing each sample is opened inside a sealed glove-box. The virus is then killed with a chemical treatment so that the testing process can be carried out more easily.

The sample we filmed being tested arrived overnight from a city hospital. As expected, it’s negative.

The lab staff are the busiest they’ve ever been. Not just testing an increased number of suspected Ebola cases but preparing to ship a “fly-away” laboratory that will support the British government’s field hospital being constructed near Freetown, in Sierra Leone. It will have the capacity to test 600 suspect Ebola cases each day.

One lab which is very quiet, however, is the most secure – biosafety level 4, the laboratory where they handle live Ebola virus. Only samples which test positive are sent to this lab for further investigation. The UK hasn’t had a positive case of Ebola for many weeks, though it’s possibly only a matter of time before one does arrive from the growing outbreak in west Africa.

Aside from rare isolated outbreaks in central Africa, since its discovery in 1976 the Ebola virus has been known only inside a handful of specialist laboratories like this. They are designed with extraordinary levels of protection to keep researchers and the public safe. But no-one who has worked with Ebola ever imagined a day when the virus would be at large in the human population, outside the confines of our most secure containment.

With a 70 per cent fatality rate in the current outbreak, Ebola is without doubt a dangerous virus. The facility which handles it is housed within one of the MoD’s most secret sites, the one which developed nerve agents like VX and still works on chemical, biological and nuclear defence. That only adds to the Ebola fear factor. But the experience of the past 40 years has shown that the virus can be kept away from man.

The virus only spreads from person to person via direct contact with body fluids from someone who is ill with the disease. Ebola is a virus thought to occur naturally in tropical bats – it has not evolved to pass between humans. That is why, despite its lethality, it is a crude human pathogen.

But if there’s one lesson from west Africa, it is that fear is a far more efficient contagion than Ebola itself. Ignorance, mistrust and terror have only made things worse. Worth bearing in mind as Ebola slowly, but perhaps inevitably, makes its way here.

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