WASHINGTON (Reuters) - About two dozen U.S. military specialists in Liberia might test laboratory samples for Ebola, but most of the Pentagon's personnel deployed there are not expected to be in direct contact with the virus, defense officials said Tuesday.
General David Rodriguez, head of U.S. forces in Africa, said three mobile labs had deployed to Liberia and four more were being sought to run tests that would distinguish between people infected with Ebola and those who have diseases with similar symptoms, such as malaria.
Each lab would be staffed by a team of three to four experts trained to operate in the worst chemical, biological and nuclear environments, Rodriguez told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
The teams operate in protective clothing that covers their head and bodies. Ebola, which can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhea, spreads through contact with bodily fluids such as blood or saliva.
The U.S. military is ramping up its response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where it has already killed more than 3,400 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Concern is growing globally that the virus could spread beyond the region to other parts of the world.
The United States currently has 348 military personnel in Liberia and Senegal working on combating the spread of Ebola. Rodriguez has been authorized to send some 3,900 troops if needed. He said at this point he expected the effort to last a year.
"We're going to stay as long as we're needed, but not longer," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez initially said the specialized lab teams would have contact with Ebola patients, but he issued a statement later clarifying his remarks and saying U.S. military personnel only would be working with samples that might contain the virus.
"The testing labs are manned by highly skilled and trained personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center. These labs provide 24-hour turnaround results on samples received from area clinics and healthcare providers," his statement said. He said the labs had a capacity of 100 samples per day.
Rodriguez said the cost was expected to be $750 million over the next six months. The Pentagon has sent Congress requests to let it spend up to $1 billion from its budget for overseas conflicts and disaster response. Lawmakers have yet to approve the funding shift, demanding details first on plans to keep U.S. military personnel safe.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Grant McCool