Recently, a 2-year-old girl with ebola traveled from Guinea to her home in Mali. The girl sadly died, but doctors in Bamoko, Mali, knew within hours of testing her that she was carrying the virus, enabling quick treatment of the girl’s relatives and safe handling of her body. This lab is why.
Level-3 biosafety facilities have negative air pressure. They have backup systems and alarms should a ventilator malfunction. Their humidity and temperature are controlled. Air goes in but it does not go out. There is an autoclave, work hoods, boxes of gloves, paper towels, and bottles of disinfectant. Sound doesn’t move between the interior and the exterior. Ebola is designated a level-4 biosafety virus in Europe, America, Singapore and Australia: handling it requires showers, dressing procedures and total isolation from the rest of the building. But no level-4 facilities exist in West Africa—the nearest is in Gabon. So in April, when the disease was proving its tenacity in neighboring Guinea, American doctors saw the threat and nominated Bamako’s level-3 lab capable of diagnosing Ebola. That is how a room designed to protect researchers from TB and HIV became a room where they could also defuse the world’s scariest bug.
Mali’s officials are not panicking, unlike American politicians. They have not sealed the borders. They are letting science dictate their response to the ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
For Sarro and Kone, diagnosing Ebola is no more frightening than diagnosing anything else. They joked in the BSL2 room that Ebola is a delicate bug, easy to break. Tuberculosis, which is airborne, is far scarier. For a molecular biologist, “at our level, the virus is always dead,” said Kone. Are they surprised to have identified Ebola in Mali? “No, it was a matter of time” said Dr. Koita. They are confident that if the government and health ministries track contacts and push public hygiene, Ebola will not last. Some responders are less sure. We eat bananas and soda in the break room after pumping hand sanitizer.