New vet lab can also protect human health

The University of Calgary’s Diagnostic Services Unit has the capability to monitor diseases that could spread to humans

A decades-long gap in Alberta’s ability to test livestock for diseases is beginning to be bridged due to a new laboratory being launched at the University of Calgary.

The project will help ease costs and deliver quicker results, and the lab will keep an eye on diseases that could potentially spread to humans, said Jennifer Davies, director of the Diagnostic Services Unit at the university’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

“As a result of that, you’re supporting not only the livelihoods of the producers, you have this incredible ability to protect animal health and welfare and also human health as well,” she said.

New services will include the ability to determine resistance patterns to antimicrobial drugs in bacteria within livestock, which can pose a threat to animal and human health, she said.

“We’ll be able to use antimicrobials more judiciously so that we prevent resistance from occurring.”

Researchers will also be better able to identify new and emerging diseases in animals that could potentially infect people, said Davies. The lab is slated to be launched Oct. 26 and will be funded until February 2024.

The provincial government recently announced $3.4 million will be provided for the lab, which will be located in the faculty’s Spy Hill campus in Calgary. The pilot project will involve veterinary diagnostics “that are of high quality, affordable and readily accessible,” said Davies.

“I think it potentially will have a tremendous impact for the livestock producers in the province.”

During an era of widespread budget cuts under then-Premier Ralph Klein, the provincial government closed several labs in 1995, ending the province’s veterinary diagnostic services to the livestock industry.

Although commercial labs are available in Alberta, they mostly provide comprehensive testing for companion animals, leaving livestock species unsupported, said Davies. Veterinarians must send samples to labs in other provinces, increasing wait times and boosting bills for Alberta producers because they don’t qualify for subsidies in those provinces, she said.

The grant for the pilot project provides subsidization for pathology and bacteriology of qualifying livestock species such as cattle, swine, goats, bison, elk, deer and poultry, said Davies.

Fees for services such as post-mortems, which currently cost Alberta producers about $300 for a full-sized cow, will be reduced to about $100 under the project, said Ashley Whitehead, associate dean of clinical programs at the faculty. “With the bacteriology, we’re going to have about a 50 percent cost reduction from what would be paid without the subsidy,” she said.

Planners envision a lab that can take samples from any animal species in the province, said Davies.

“I think what we will probably see, though, coming through this lab — especially as we support cattle health — is a lot of the bacterial agents associated with bovine respiratory disease complex, which is of course tremendously costly for the industry, and antimicrobials are a first-line defense for that,” she said.

The pilot project will make “Alberta more self-reliant and better able to serve our livestock industry here in the province,” said Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen, adding it will save “vets and the livestock industry both time and money.”

Funding is being provided through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a shared federal-provincial program.

The new lab, which will be about 1,100 sq. feet, will be located within an existing building on campus.

Besides the hiring of five additional staff, it will include three major pieces of equipment to identify bacteria and determine antimicrobial susceptibility, with capital equipment costs totaling $585,000.

The project will have a significant impact on students, said Davies. “One of the real added bonuses of having that type of lab at a university is our ability to educate our future veterinarians as well, so this lab, wow, is certainly where we do the diagnostics, but it is also an important part of our teaching,” she said.

The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine hopes to secure a 10-year provincial grant to extend and expand diagnostic services past the end of the pilot project in 2024, said outgoing faculty dean Baljit Singh.

“It gives us an opportunity to ramp up, scale up, present the data to the government and say, ‘look, that is the difference we are making to the producers.’ ”

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