Nigerian mobile lab in Sierra Leone: bringing skills learned in one outbreak to another

March 2015

A Nigerian mobile lab has been operating in Sierra Leone as part of the international effort to help test Ebola samples in the current outbreak. The lab saves critical hours by testing the samples rapidly and reducing the need to transport samples over long distances. The lab plans to return to Nigeria to work on Lassa fever when the Ebola outbreak is over.

Yemisi Ighodalo, a lab technician at work in the EMLAB mobile laboratory in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Yemisi Ighodalo, a lab technician at work in the EMLAB mobile laboratory in Freetown, Sierra Leone
WHO/Pieter Desloovere

A mobile laboratory with six Nigerian laboratory scientists and technicians has been operating in Sierra Leone since mid-December as part of the international effort to help test Ebola samples in the current outbreak. The mobile laboratory was initially set up for Lassa fever research in Nigeria. The mobile laboratory first became active when the first Ebola case appeared in Nigeria.

Supported by the European Union Mobile Laboratory Consortium (EMLAB) and the African Union, the international deployment of the mobile laboratory was coordinated though WHO’s Emerging and Dangerous Pathogens Laboratory Network (EDPLN), and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). The mobile lab became active when an Ebola case appeared in Nigeria.

“This is the third time a Nigerian laboratory unit is being deployed and set up in this current Ebola outbreak in West Africa,” says Dr Danny Asogun, the Nigerian team leader for the mobile laboratory. “Our team also assisted in Enugu and Port Harcourt, two hotspots during the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria.”

Dr Danny Asogun, the Nigerian team leader for the EMLAB mobile laboratory in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Dr Danny Asogun, the Nigerian team leader for the EMLAB mobile laboratory in Freetown, Sierra Leone
WHO/Pieter Desloovere

Detecting the Ebola virus

The lab operates next to an Ebola treatment centre in Kingtown, on the outskirts of the capital city Freetown. The lab saves critical hours by testing the samples rapidly and reducing the need to transport samples over long distances. “Nowadays we receive 5 to 7 samples a day to test for the Ebola virus,” Dr Asogun continues. “Back in December we received about 15 samples per day, blood samples as well as swabs.”

“The whole process of detecting the Ebola virus takes about 3 hours. Our lab works in three shifts and our maximum capacity is to test 50 samples a day”, says Dr Asogun.

When testing blood samples for Ebola virus, the virus must first be inactivated to make it non-infectious and safer for testing. The second step is to extract genetic material from the blood sample. The Ebola virus carries its genetic material as ribonucleic acid (RNA), so testing aims to identify the RNA unique to the Ebola virus. The final step is to create enough copies of the RNA – through a biochemical process called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – to enable the presence of the virus to be confirmed.

“The fact that we are testing many fewer samples shows how the outbreak has been reduced. We will return to our important Lassa Fever work, when the Ebola outbreak is finally over,” says Dr Danny Asogun.