09/28/2012 02:16 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST

Canadian doctors to combat Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo

WINNIPEG - A group of antiviral specialists will soon be en route to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help combat a deadly Ebola outbreak, the Public Health Agency of Canada said Friday.

A team of three scientists from the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Laboratory will be dispatched to the impoverished African country, which has been grappling with the dangerous virus since May.

The World Health Organization said at least 20 people have died from the virus, which was officially declared an outbreak on Aug. 17. At least 51 cases have been identified so far, it added.

Dr. Frank Plummer, scientific director at the NML, said a mobile lab will be set up on the ground to help diagnose cases as they arise.

"There's a big difference if you can get a lab result in a few hours in the field as opposed to a few weeks because in these epidemic situations, there's concerns about things like Ebola, but there's also lots of other causes of fever that are not Ebola," Plummer said on a conference call.

"It's important to be able to distinguish them because the actions you take are quite different."

The mobile lab _ one of four available for deployment in global public health crises _ will be up and running within hours of the team's arrival in the Congo, he said.

The portable diagnostic units are in high demand when public health emergencies surface in poorer countries, he said, adding the labs have been sent into the field at least once a year over the past decade.

The fully functional lab can be packed into regular suitcases and transported on commercial flights, said chief of special pathogens Gary Kobinger.

Microscopes, isolaters, generators and protective gear give technicians access to many of the same resources available in Winnipeg, he said.

The latest trip marks the third time the NML has been asked to assist with an active outbreak in the Congo, he said. Teams were deployed in 2003 and 2007, he said, adding scientists have visited the country on other occasions for research purposes.

The NML _ which operates under the auspices of the PHAC _ is currently at the leading edge of potential treatments for the deadly disease.

Kobinger announced in June that a cocktail of antibodies showed promise as a life-saving treatment for those infected with the virus.

The treatment was administered to eight monkeys either one or two days after they had been deliberately infected with Ebola, and researchers said all but two were saved.

The treatment is not yet ready for human use, however, and Kobinger stressed that vaccination will not be part of the team's mandate during the upcoming mission.

"The treatment we've been working on, they are at the experimental level," he said. "Our mission . . . is really to do rapid diagnostics so that, as a group, the patients can be managed effectively."

Plummer said the Canadian team will be joining a group from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who have been on the ground for some time.

He said the Canadian mission was set in motion partly because of requests from American officials.

"It's difficult circumstances to work in, the situation is not completely under control, they need more resources, so they're asking for our help," he said, adding there's no protocol as to when Canada's mobile labs are sent into the field.

The Congo is no stranger to Ebola epidemics. The country has struggled with eight separate epidemics since 1976.

The Ebola virus has no cure and is deadly in 40 to 90 per cent of cases. The disease causes severe internal bleeding.

_ With files from the Associated Press