Scientists and researchers at RTI International are part of a growing multi-national commitment from “first responders” to fight a new outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa. The Triangle-based organization has boots on the ground already who are helping coordinate information and diseases response.

And they are at risk.

A rapid response is crucial given the mortality of the disease. The virus can cause severe viral hemorrhagic fever with a case fatality rate of up to 90 percent. There is still no known treatment or vaccine, and health care workers have suffered infections while treating the sick. However, RTI notes that there are 12 potential vaccines under development.

The World Health Organization has reported nearly 30 deaths suspected of having been caused by Ebola, which is a hemorrhagic fever. As of this week, four deaths attributed to Ebola since the current outbreak was declared on May 11. The latest outbreak was detected earlier this month in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.

The Ebola outbreak, which is the eighth to occur in the DRC since 1976, also could have already infected more than 400 other people. Revised figures show some 101 “contacts” who are considered “at risk.” There have been 36 Ebola outbreaks since it was discovered in 1976, according to the CDC.

In 2014, more than 11,300 people died, with most deaths occurring in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Several life science companies across North Carolina as well as university researchers and RTI were actively involved in efforts to deal with the 2014 outbreak.

On Tuesday, RTI said it was mobilizing again with the help of funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RTI, an independent, nonprofit institute providing research, development, and technical services to government and commercial clients worldwide, is the lead data surveillance partner for the CDC’s Global Health Security Agenda activities in DRC. Epidemiologist and lab specialists from the DRC Ministry of Health, WHO and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) also are involved.

RTI is not new to the Ebola fight. Researchers will be using “experience and knowledge gained from supporting efforts in 2015-2016 to halt the spread of Ebola in Guinea, one of the hardest-hit countries,” RTI notes.

Boots on the ground

“RTI has deployed two staff to the outbreak’s epicenter in Likati,” Dr. Pia MacDonald, senior epidemiologist at RTI, tells WRAL TechWire.

“Dr. Bona Ngoyi, a DRC national, is a medical doctor and trained epidemiologist, who assisted with international Ebola response activities in Guinea during the 2014-2016 outbreak. He is working directly with the Ministry of Health and partners such as the World Health Organization to improve early detection of suspected cases and to ensure safe and effective monitoring of their contacts.

“As part of the Surveillance Coordination Commission, Dr. Ngoyi is also helping to conduct a deeper investigation into the origins of the current outbreak to better pinpoint when and how transmission of the Ebola virus began and then spread throughout the area.

“We have also deployed a specialist in information and communication technology (ICT), Mr. Christian Tunda. He is helping to identify realistic and innovative mechanisms for improving communication, information-sharing, and data management in the extremely remote and low-resource area where the outbreak is located.”

A quick response is important, MacDonald points out.

“Strengthening a country’s ability to prevent and respond to epidemics like Ebola is essential not just for the affected country, but for everyone around the globe,” he says. “We saw in 2014 just how fast an Ebola outbreak can spread worldwide. It’s essential that we work together to stop this threat as quickly as possible.”

RTI’s assistance

RTI, which maintains an office in Africa and has thousands of researchers and scientists at outposts around the world, is assisting governments and healthcare officials in several ways in the Congo.

“RTI is providing immediate support to the Ministry of Health through the provision of specialists in the areas of epidemiology, outbreak response, information technology, and health informatics,” MacDonald explains.

“We are meeting a critical need for highly experienced, technical experts who are able to provide hands-on assistance in the remote, difficult-to-reach area where the outbreak is located.”

MacDonald points out that having staff onsite enables quick responses.

“By working directly in the outbreak epicenter, our staff are able to work closely with the Ministry of Health, WHO, and other partners assess the rapidly-evolving situation on a daily basis and develop effective responses to quickly contain the outbreak,” he says.

“RTI’s technical assistance is further supported by a cadre of infectious disease experts from our US-based Headquarters and our Global Health Security Project Office in Guinea, West Africa.”

Protecting staff

RTI also is making sure staff in Africa are protected.

“RTI staff are not working directly with Ebola patients,” MacDonald explains when asked about health risks. “Nonetheless, our staff are well-trained in CDC’s guidelines for preventing infection during case detection and contact monitoring activities.

“In fact, our staff have been involved in training community members on these protection guidelines.”

The team also is counting on the latest high-tech to stay in touch and informed.

“In addition, our staff have GPS technology on their smart phones that allows RTI to identify our staff’s position at any time, even in the most remote places on earth, so that RTI can rapidly respond if a staff emergency occurs,” MacDonald says.

Fast reaction

RTI was well positioned to be a “first responder.”

“RTI has an existing office in Kinshasa, DRC to support our CDC-funded activities to strengthen surveillance of epidemic-prone diseases such as Ebola,” MacDonald notes.

“This allowed us to rapidly mobilize resources to support the Ministry of Health’s Ebola response activities. Within 24 hours of receiving notification of the outbreak, RTI’s Kinshasa-based Surveillance Specialist, Dr. Ngoyi, began working with epidemiologist from the Ministry of Health to assess the situation and develop a strategy for improving early detection of suspected cases.

“We have additional Africa-based, French speaking staff, on standby should more people be needed to support the response.”