Belgian Researchers Join Investigation Into Cause of Ebola Outbreak in Congo



Biologists Sophie Gryseels, Herwig Leirs and Erik Verheyen will investigate the cause of the 2017 Ebola outbreak in northern Congo (Photo: University of Antwerp)
Belgian Researchers Join Investigation Into Cause of Ebola Outbreak in Congo
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Reinout Verbeke

A small-scale Ebola epidemic broke out in northern Congo in May was contained relatively quickly. Now, at the request of the Congolese authorities, an international team including scientists from the University of Antwerp and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences are heading to the remote province of Bas-Uélé in search of the source of the infection.

More than 11 000 people died during a major Ebola epidemic in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2014 and 2015. So when an outbreak was reported in a very remote village in northern Congo in May, alarm bells started ringing immediately. Thanks to speedy interventions by the health authorities, and also to the village’s remote location, the consequences of the outbreak were limited. A few dozen suspected cases have been reported.

The virus appears to have been prevented from spreading further. To know more about the origin of this outbreak, the Congolese Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale is assembling an international team who will carry out ecological research into the source of the infection.

Bats Under The Microscope

“That Congolese institute also contacted the University of Antwerp,” explains biologist Herwig Leirs. He and his colleagues Erik Verheyen and Sophie Gryseels are due to start their three-week posting to Congo on Wednesday 28 June. Verheyen, who works for the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (KBIN), is a long-time collaborator of the Université de Kisangani and is familiar with the area and its fauna. Gryseels left for Guinea in 2014, where she spent a month analysing patients’ blood and urine in a mobile lab during the major Ebola outbreak. UAntwerp and KBIN have both allocated funding for the research.

“What’s unusual about this epidemic is that the infection of the first patient is well-documented”, explains Leirs. “It was a fisherman who found a dead wild boar in the woods and decided to take some of its meat home with him. We know where this happened. What we don’t yet know is which species ‘hosts’ the virus in the wild, although there are strong indications that bats could be responsible.”

Respecting Biosafety

The three Flemish scientists will be working with a team of researchers from Kisangani’s Centre de Surveillance de la Biodiversité to collect tissue samples from mammals, and especially from bats, rodents, shrews and bushmeat – game hunted by the local population for consumption and trade. Erik Verheyen: “We’ll take samples of blood and different organs from all of the animals we collect. During this fieldwork, biosafety concerns will be of paramount importance. It goes without saying that we don’t want to take any chances when it comes to avoiding infection.”


(Text: Peter De Meyer, University of Antwerp)

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