U.S. anti-terror outpost tackles rat-borne virus

KENEMA, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - In a far-flung laboratory in West Africa, American researcher Matt Boisen drops serum from a woman infected with Lassa fever onto a slim strip, testing a new way of diagnosing the deadly virus.

Ecologist James Koninga anesthetises a Mastomys Natalensis rodent with Isoflurane ether in the village of Jormu in southeastern Sierra Leone February 8, 2011. REUTERS/Simon Akam

Soon a tell-tale red horizontal bar appears.

Boisen’s laboratory in southeastern Sierra Leone is an outpost of the U.S. government’s “war on terror,” funded by a surge in bio-defense spending since the airplane and anthrax attacks on New York and Washington a decade ago.

American research aims to limit the vulnerability of western interests to biological agents. In the case of Lassa swift and simple diagnosis is seen as critical to doing that.

“There’s been a renewed emphasis on those tropical diseases that (government health officials) consider biothreats,” explained Boisen of his work on Lassa, which, similar to Ebola, can cause victims to bleed from multiple orifices.

Lassa fever, named after the Nigerian town where it was first identified in 1969, is among a U.S. list of “category A” diseases -- deemed to have the potential for major public health impact -- alongside anthrax and botulism.

The disease is carried by a species of rodent, Mastomys Natalensis, found across sub-Saharan Africa and often eaten as a source of protein. It infects an estimated 300,000-500,000 people each year, and kills about 5,000.

“There’s a recognition that this is a higher level threat agent,” said Dr. Thomas Geisbert, an academic at the University of Texas and a former researcher at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases.

“It would be naive not to think some terrorist group could use one of these things to create terror.”

In 2001 -- prior to the September 11 attacks -- the U.S. National Institutes of Health budget for bioterrorism and related research was $53 million. But by the fiscal year 2007 the NIH was requesting more than $1.9 billion.


In Sierra Leone the current Lassa research -- a $40 million project involving Tulane University in New Orleans -- is run out of the government hospital in Kenema in the southeast of the impoverished country.

The regular stream of Lassa fever patients, kept in an isolation ward, provide researchers with access to the virus.

Staff hope their new diagnostic product will eventually be cheap, simple and robust enough to take into the field - comparable to current tests for malaria or HIV - replacing complicated laboratory procedures.

Such a test could quickly identify an outbreak in the United States, and also should dramatically reduce the disease’s impact in its home territory. A patient’s chances of survival increase if they receive early treatment.

In Kenema, 300km (200 miles) from the capital Freetown, it is impossible to create the same levels of protection for researchers that they would experience a western lab.

In the United States, Lassa virus is handled in bio-safety level four facilities, where researchers wear “space suits” - but in Kenema measures include goggles, gloves and masks.

“Certainly we have less safety, less containment, but we do have the ability to do a lot more in the same amount of time,” said Boisen.

While expatriates predominantly work in the laboratory, a local outreach team tries to persuade local people not to eat the Mastomys rodent -- a difficult task.

“It tastes good,” said staffer Lansana Kanneh. “That is why it is very difficult for us to take people off from eating rat.”

Editing by Richard Valdmanis