This study reports the first field evaluation of a new diagnostic technique for Ebola virus disease with sensitivity and specificity. Ebola virus causes rare but fulminating outbreaks in Equatorial Africa. Rapid differentiation from other infections is critical for timely implementation of public health measures. Patients usually die before developing antibodies, necessitating rapid virus detection. A reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay was developed, implemented and evaluated at Centre International de Recherches Médicales de Franceville (CIRMF) in Gabon, to detect Ebola viral RNA in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). Twenty-six laboratory-confirmed patients during and 5 after the acute phase of Ebola haemorrhagic fever, 15 healthy controls and 20 febrile patients not infected with Ebola virus were studied. RT-PCR results were compared with ELISA antigen capture, and Ebola specific IgM and IgG antibody detection. Ebola virus RNA was amplified from 26/26 specimens from the acute phase, 3/5 during recovery, 0/20 febrile patients and 1/15 negative controls. Sensitivity of RT-PCR in identifying acute infection and early convalescence compared with antigen or IgM detection was 100% and 91% respectively, and specificity compared with antigen detection and IgM assay combined was 97%. Antigen capture detected only 83% of those identified by PCR, and IgM only 67%. Ebola virus RNA was detected in all 13 fatalities, only 5 of whom had IgM and none IgG. RT-PCR detected Ebola RNA in PBMC one to three weeks after disappearance of symptoms when antigen was undetectable. RT-PCR was the most sensitive method and able to detect virus from early acute disease throughout early recovery.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.