Belgian Scientists Study Ebola Outbreak in Congo




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Taking blood and tissue samples of bats in the biosafe field lab in Kagbono (North of DRC), where an Ebola outbreak occured May 2017. (Photo: University of Antwerp)
Belgian Scientists Study Ebola Outbreak in Congo
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Reinout Verbeke

In North-Congo, Belgian scientists have studied the cause of a local ebola outbreak. This outbreak took four lives in May.

The researchers found a large colony of bats close to the infection hearth. Bats are considered to be potential hosts for the virus. The analysis of the blood and the organs of about 300 bats and other mammals (rodents and “bushmeat”) should reveal whether one or more of the species is host to the virus.

The animals were caught during July 2017 by biologists of the University of Antwerp and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, together with foreign colleagues from the American National Institutes of Health and the Biodiversity Monitoring Center at the University of Kisangani. The investigation took place near the Kagbono Camp, in the remote Congolese province Bas-Uélé. In this camp, the outbreak in May 2017 infected 8 people, killing 4.

“The outbreak was particularly interesting since the first patient was identified – a fisherman from Kagbono – and we knew where he resided before he became sick,” says Herwig Leirs (Global Change Ecology Centre, Research Group Evolutionary ecology). “We already suspected that bats host the virus. We now had the ability to perform targeted sampling efforts. This revealed that a colony of 10000’s of fruit bats live 3 km downstream on the river. We were actually just in time. The bat colony migrated away a week later, searching for ripe fruit.”

“We sampled tissue and blood from all the animals”, says Erik Verheyen (Global Change Ecology Center and RBINS). “We installed a field lab with a central tent facility that could only be entered with a special, protective suit and helmet with filtered air. Bio-safety is crucial in this kind of scientific work.”

All samples were carefully disinfected and packed, and transported to the lab in Kinshasa, where they are tested by researchers of the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale (INRB) and a specialist of the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. Sophie Gryseels (Evolutionary Ecology Research Group) stayed in Kinshasa for the analysis. “We are very eager for the results,” says Herwig Leirs. “If they are positive, we can initiate the drawing of risk maps and provide instructions for adapted behaviour for the area.”

In Kagbono, the Belgian scientists were relieved by teams of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, the French Institut de recherche pour le dévéloppement and the INRB. They continue the work in August.

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