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10 Years Since the West Africa Ebola Outbreak

Global Health Surveillance In Vitro Diagnostics

MRIGlobal’s Response Improved Diagnostics, Saved Lives

Just over 10 years ago, in March 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in the forested rural region of southeastern Guinea. The identification of these early cases marked the beginning of the West Africa Ebola outbreak, the largest in history. 

While infectious diseases like Ebola aren’t new, where, how, and sometimes even which diseases are emerging to threaten public health are all evolving. Due to global trade and travel, climate change, and other factors, the risks have increased substantially in recent decades. Today, pressing viral, bacterial, soil, and vector-borne diseases are each formidable. And it is only a matter of time until a new one emerges to threaten human health.  

Read more about the disease and the myriad of complex cultural, political, and economic factors that contribute to the conditions that allow Ebola to exist in West Africa in “Ebola Virus Disease and our Outbreak Response.” 

Following the Outbreak
In the months following the identification of those first cases in Guinea and then Sierra Leone, the United States Department of Defense was helping with support for diagnostic testing in the early response. Unfortunately, because they were initially dependent on laboratories far removed from the remote outbreak epicenters, the turnaround time to run tests was more than 24 hours. As you can imagine, a patient who is symptomatic and ill enough to visit for testing is one who needs a prompt diagnosis and immediate care.  

It was after this that the Department of Defense called on MRIGlobal to design, fabricate, equip, deploy, and operate a better solution that would help provide localized diagnostics and decrease the time from sample-to-answer in these countries.  

Interested in the detection and diagnostics of infectious diseases in remote environments? Listen to this “field forward” episode of the “Science Diction” podcast from MRIGlobal. 

Meeting an Important Challenge
In response, MRIGlobal’s engineers, biologists, chemists, program managers, and others from across the institute took a multidisciplinary approach to design and build laboratory diagnostic capabilities for use in remote areas without strong public health systems. In order to meet customer requirements, the first of these laboratories had to be ready to deploy in six weeks. 

Our challenge was to develop a platform to house the advanced diagnostic equipment and with the space necessary for a well-trained staff to safely work with these pathogens in the field, and with the throughput to improve the time from sample-to-answer. The chosen platform was a 20-foot ISO container. Within this container – and in the required few short weeks – we built a laboratory that was safe and secure, enabling scientists to use the instrumentation necessary to provide localized, high-quality analytical results to support patient care. Soon after, we built a second mobile diagnostic laboratory using this same approach.  

We also had to figure out how this laboratory would be transported to West Africa. While loading a laboratory of this size onto a military plane or a 747 in the United States was not an issue, offloading it upon arrival was, as the necessary equipment was not available in country. Designed to carry heavy loads and with its own 30-ton capacity crane onboard, the Antonov AN-124 was chosen for the job. 

Once deployed to West Africa, our team of engineers provided on-site setup and operation. Our staffing of these mobile diagnostic laboratories then helped support prompt and accurate testing of up to 110 samples per day, reducing sample turnaround times to less than four hours.   

Following their initial use during the outbreak, these units were transferred to the local ministries of health to help provide infrastructure not only to support a possible future outbreak, but also for the ongoing health needs of the local communities. We also worked with local health officials and international partners to scale up efforts to increase laboratory diagnostic and surveillance capacity, while improving biorisk management in impacted countries. We supported this effort by implementing training sessions for human and animal health professionals in Senegal and Guinea. Today, enhanced biosurveillance supports the public health response.

Development of the Athena Mobile Laboratory
Upon our return from the field, this platform served as the basis for development of the Athena Mobile Laboratory, which is a ground-up redesign of the mobile lab system concept. This new container provides a greatly enhanced mobile laboratory workspace capable of rapid worldwide deployment. The platform is custom built to eliminate the limitations involved with modifying a shipping container into a lab. This allows for an enhanced structural design and better insulation to provide a more ergonomic workspace better protected from harsh environmental conditions. 

For additional background on how our Athena Mobile Laboratory supports an effective infectious disease response, read this case study from Labconco, whose equipment was utilized during our deployment to West Africa.  

Trusted Partner in Global Health Surveillance
MRIGlobal is a trusted partner to government and commercial customers in global health surveillance for infectious disease preparedness and response. Utilizing our high-containment biological laboratories, our researchers make scientific advancements and save lives around the world. Beyond the development and deployment of mobile diagnostic laboratories, our capabilities in this area include:  

  • Developing diagnostic assays to expand and accelerate the delivery of high-quality clinical diagnostic tools 
  • Evaluating the safety and efficacy of vaccines and therapeutics used in infectious disease response and control 
  • Supporting human trial efforts to test infectious disease vaccine and treatment efforts 
  • Building and managing studies for virus transmission to aid in future disease prevention and response efforts 

For decades, we have been predicting, preventing, and controlling infectious disease outbreaks around the world. From our work in the laboratory testing new diagnostic devices or deployments in field-forward settings to support the localized response to a disease outbreak, our research scientists understand these threats and how to combat them.   


Contact MRIGlobal for further information about our work with infectious diseases. Through a multidisciplinary approach, we provide scientific and subject matter expertise for the development of medical countermeasures research against specific threats, while expanding and accelerating the delivery of high-quality clinical diagnostic products.   

To discuss how we can help your project be successful, contact us today.   

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