Researchers volunteer to fight Ebola

Health news

Four University of Leeds researchers have volunteered to fight the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone.

The scientists, who all work in the University’s Faculty of Biological Sciences, will each work for five weeks in diagnostic laboratories run by Public Health England in the West African country.

Scientists in the laboratories do not work directly with Ebola patients but are vital to the international effort because of the importance of diagnosing cases quickly and accurately.

Dr Hazel Stewart, a 29-year-old researcher who has been working on the hepatitis C virus in the University’s School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is the first of the Leeds researchers to be deployed.

She said: “The labs are based near the clinics so the diagnosis can be delivered as quickly as possible. They will send us blood samples from the patients and we will extract and detect Ebola’s genetic material. This lab-based analysis is the most reliable available and they need skilled people on the ground to do it.”

Dr Stewart has received intensive training for her posting at Public Health England’s laboratories in Porton Down, Salisbury, and traveled to Port Loko in Sierra Leone this week. 

“I am apprehensive and nervous, but excited as well. I became a scientist to help people and this is a clear opportunity to do that,” Dr Stewart said.

“My parents were not happy when I first told them I was going, but they realise that this is what I want to do and this is why I have done all my training.”

Dr Zsofia Igloi, aged 30, an expert in the hepatitis C virus; Dr Rebecca Surtees, 26, who has been researching the bunyavirus family of viruses;  and Mr Andrew Buckley, 24, who is in the third year of PhD research into a family of viruses called arenaviruses, will be deployed to Sierra Leone in the coming months.

Mr Buckley, who is expecting to be deployed in March, said: “This is what we come into this field for. If you are a virologist, you want to be active in the fight against dangerous viruses like Ebola. It is something that I feel I have to do because I am a specialist in this area, and this is a unique situation that requires specialized skills.”

Dr Igloi said: “I feel very proud to be playing my part in the network of scientists and medics confronting Ebola in West Africa. As virologists, it is our job to fight disease, and this programme is a particularly clear opportunity to make an immediate impact.”

Dr Surtees said: “I feel it is my responsibility to use the skills I have to help the people of Sierra Leone.  I am looking forward to doing work that will help those who are ill with Ebola.”

Professor Mark Harris, Professor of Virology and the head of Dr Stewart’s and Dr Igloi’s research team, said: “The infrastructure required to confront Ebola relies not only on nursing and medical support, but on having the ability to diagnose cases quickly and check when people have recovered. This is part of a national programme led by Public Health England to get the people with the right experience to the affected countries.”

Professor Harris said: “Sierra Leone has been at the centre of the outbreak, but the fact that there has been an international response in recent months and that this efficient screening programme has been put in place has undoubtedly helped slow down the epidemic. There is some evidence that the epidemic may have peaked and the hope is that our researchers may be playing a part in the successful control of the disease.” 

Image information

From left to right, Dr Hazel Stewart, Dr Rebecca Surtees, Dr Zsofia Igloi, and Mr Andrew Buckley. (c) University of Leeds.

Further information

Contact: Chris Bunting, Press Officer, University of Leeds; phone: +44 113 343 2049 or email