WASHINGTON (Reuters) - About two dozen U.S. military specialists deploying to Liberia will test laboratory samples for Ebola, but most of the nearly 4,000 troops due to go 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 full protective clothing. 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 that the virus could spread to other parts of the world.
The United States 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 and did not think more troops would be necessary.
"We're going to stay as long as we're needed, but not longer," said Rodriguez, who estimated the cost of the military operation at $750 million for the next six months.
Many of the military personnel due to go to Liberia in the coming months are construction workers who will build up to 17 100-bed Ebola treatment facilities.
Rodriguez said health officials estimated at least 70 percent of those diagnosed with the virus need to be in treatment facilities in order to slow the spread of the disease.
Assistant Defense Secretary Andy Weber, who is responsible for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, said the Pentagon was working with international partners to ensure there are more beds than patients, aiming to contain the spread by isolating the patients.
"If you've seen the modeling from CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it's on a fast rise. But we can turn it. We know what to do," said Weber, who is leaving the Defense Department to become the deputy to the State Department's Ebola Coordinator, Ambassador Nancy Powell.
"Over half the people infected with Ebola can survive if they have just basic medical support," he said. "So we can get ahead of this, but right now we're playing catch-up because it really started to spread at an exponential rate in August."
Weber said the U.S. departments of Defense and Health and Human Services had been primary investors in the search for drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools to counter the Ebola virus, including the promising experimental drug ZMapp produced by Mapp Biopharmaceutical.
"Ebola has always been on the threat list of agents that we're concerned about," he said, noting that rare diseases like Ebola are "not a commercial market so big pharma doesn't have an interest in pursuing these, which is why the government involvement is so important."
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Grant McCool and Ken Wills