New disease lab opens in B.C.

VICTORIA – After nine months of testing, British Columbia’s first Containment Level 3 lab is fully operating not far from where the 2004 avian flu outbreak caused a $600 million loss to the province’s poultry sector.

Built for $14 million, the three-storey CL3 lab is connected to the existing Animal Health Centre and its Level 2 labs at Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley.

This new lab means virologists can test for and diagnose foreign animal and emerging diseases faster than five years ago when the avian flu rapidly spread throughout Fraser Valley poultry operations.

“There was difficulty in getting samples to Winnipeg,” said Dr. Paul Kitching, B.C.’s chief veterinary officer. “They had to hire a plane every night to fly samples to Winnipeg.”

In 2004, Kitching was working in Winnipeg as director of the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease, the only high security lab at that time that could do the necessary testing and diagnosis.

Calling the CL3 lab a “building within a building” where “incredible science” is taking place, B.C. agriculture minister Steve Thomson said the new lab will produce test results within days.

That quick diagnosis means programs will roll out sooner, which translates into less financial loss for producers, Thomson said in an interview.

When a disease like BSE rears its head, a fast response is vital given that borders with trade partners can shut tight within days.

During a tour in September, poultry and dairy producers voiced their support for the facility, Thomson said.

Because the lab is dealing with a variety of what can be devastating, virulent animal diseases, the lab was built to tough standards.

Everything done in the lab must follow a massive guidebook known as the Standard Operating Procedures, which ensures that quality, accredited methods are used at all times, said Kitching, who has been working in B.C. for one year.

Over the last few months the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Canada’s Public Health Agency have been rigorously testing the CL3 lab, with the passing grade given in September.

“They really go through it with a fine-tooth comb,” Kitching said.

The nine months of testing were necessary to prove that the procedures worked and that every physical element was fail-proof, such as a special epoxy coating on the floor to prevent anything from leaking and a hydroclave, used to repeatedly boil all liquids originating in the lab.

“You don’t want no bugs to get out of there,” said Walter Edgar, project manager for Vanbots Construction, general contractor for the lab.

To get an idea of how exacting the testing is, another Containment Level 3 lab was completed in Edmonton shortly before Abbotsford’s facility but it still is not fully commissioned, Edgar said.

One important test involves how the lab operates during a power failure.

Abbotsford’s 405 sq. metre CL3 lab has two levels of back-up generators.

If those generators fail, a physics phenomenon known as the “stack effect” will kick in to prevent air from escaping, Kitching said.

It’s crucial that potentially virus-laden air doesn’t flow out of the lab so it was built with negative air pressure, which means anything that’s airborne will travel only from the outside in, not from the inside out.

HEPA filters will operate round-the-clock.

“Anything nasty is filtered out,” Kitching said.

The four virologists who work in the lab must remove every piece of clothing, including underwear, as well as their jewelry, before working in the lab.

Access is controlled via computerized doors.

They wear surgical-type clothes while working in the lab, known as the “dirty side.”

Once finished their shift, the scientists shower and their work clothes are disinfected.

The only lab designation higher is Level 4, where highly virulent diseases like the Ebola virus or SARS are analyzed in conditions where the scientists wear astronaut-type suits and have their own air supply.

Even as a minister, Thomson couldn’t breach the CL3 security. Instead, he could only look through the triple-sealed, unbreakable windows during his news conference.

And while the lab’s mandate doesn’t include human disease, Thomson said there is the potential for testing of human diseases.

Because the majority of emerging diseases have their origins in animals, zoonotic diseases like H1N1 or chlamydia are fair game, Kitching said.

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