Press release

Ebola legacy lab will improve Sierra Leone's resilience to future epidemics

Samples from the recently confirmed case of Ebola in Sierra Leone have been analysed at a new infectious diseases laboratory in the country, set up in the wake of the epidemic. The research, carried out by two local scientists recently trained in next-generation genome sequencing techniques, will provide vital information about the virus that will help international scientists to identify the potential source of the infection.

The lab at the University of Makeni (UNIMAK) – a collaboration with the University of Cambridge supported by funding from the Wellcome Trust – will be officially opened today (Friday 22 January) by Sierra Leonean Health Minister Dr Abu Bakarr Fofanah.

In the longer-term, the new facility will provide Sierra Leone with a greater ability to identify emerging infectious diseases in the earliest stages, increasing the country's resilience to future epidemics. It is also expected to become a centre of excellence for research and teaching in the country, which has suffered more than 14,000 cases of the disease since the outbreak began.

The laboratory evolved from a temporary facility at the Mateneh Ebola Treatment Centre, set up in April 2015 by Professor Ian Goodfellow, a UK-based virologist who decided to apply his skills as an infectious disease researcher to the global response effort at the height of the Ebola outbreak.

With just a single Thermo Fisher Scientific Ion PGM sequencing machine, selected for its ability to function in a harsh environment of high temperatures, humidity and dust, the lab quickly began processing samples collected over the course of the epidemic to provide information about the evolution of the virus in real time. To date it has processed more than 1,200 clinical samples (including blood, semen and breastmilk), generating almost 600 full length Ebola virus genomes – the largest single dataset from any laboratory.

Now relocated to its permanent home in the university, with support from the UK Department for International Development, the UNIMAK Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory will provide a world-class environment for the training of local scientists and will bolster the in-country capacity for ongoing disease surveillance.

In addition to Ebola, researchers will study other infectious diseases such as leptospirosis and Lassa Fever, as very little is known currently about these infections in the local population. The information they obtain will be made available to the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and local healthcare providers so that it may be used to devise better diagnostic and treatment strategies.

Prof Goodfellow, from the University of Cambridge, said: "We initially set up our makeshift laboratory to provide temporary support during the emergency response to the Ebola epidemic. However, it soon became clear that there was a need to establish a more permanent facility within Sierra Leone to maintain these capabilities for the future.

"What started as little more than a sequencing machine in a tent has since blossomed into a fully functioning laboratory, where a new generation of scientists will train in the latest genome sequencing techniques to allow them to study infectious diseases in the local community."

Professor Father Joe Turay, Vice Chancellor of the University of Makeni (UNIMAK), said: "As a university this laboratory will be part of our contribution to building a resilient health system in the country. Our partnership with Cambridge, along with other foundations and institutions, is about supporting UNIMAK in providing the training, research and community services that will strengthen our health infrastructure for post Ebola recovery in Sierra Leone."

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "The recently confirmed case of Ebola in Sierra Leone serves as poignant reminder of the need to remain vigilant, and the new facilities in Makeni are already playing an important role in this.

"Beyond Ebola, it's critical that research capabilities are strengthened and maintained in the long-term to build a better picture of health and disease in the local population. Not only will this help to improve the way infections are diagnosed and treated, it will also increase the region’s ability to identify and respond quickly to new epidemic threats as they  emerge."