Fighting H1N1 virus

ROSS ROMANIUK AND KATHLEEN HARRIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:17 AM ET

The front line in Canada's battle against the H1N1 flu virus and other deadly pathogens is a sprawling grey complex in Winnipeg's western core.

For the past decade, scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory have routinely done what most people would consider unthinkable -- getting very close and personal with the planet's most lethal human and animal viruses, maladies and diseases that go by such dreaded names as Ebola, Lassa fever, Marburg and SARS.

The federal high-security lab -- part of an elite group of such facilities around the world -- has many of its more than 500 employees trying daily to learn as much as possible about these threats in order to keep the rest of us out of their way.

"It has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years, with all that has gone on," Kelly Keith, a spokeswoman for the laboratory, said of staffing and activity at the facility amid the ongoing H1N1 health scare and Canada's listeria outbreak last summer.

Under the guidance of scientific director Dr. Frank Plummer, about 15 staff members have been dedicated to deal with the formerly named swine flu at the Microbiology Lab -- a component of the larger 29,000-square-metre Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health.

"And there is the ability to bring in more staff from other areas if need be," said Keith. "We also have staff working on different research aspects that aren't included in that number."

With Canada's only Biological Safety Level 4 containment capability, the multi-block, five-storey complex -- operated under the Winnipeg-based Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) -- is a key cog in the international war on infectious organisms.

Among those infectious threats is the human swine influenza -- renamed by public health authorities this week as the H1N1 virus -- that has killed 48 people in Mexico, two in the U.S., and one each in Canada and Costa Rica, while infecting about 1,600 people Mexico, at least 281 in Canada and many more in the U.S. and worldwide.

The state-of-the-art Microbiology Lab and its American counterpart on which it's modelled -- the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control -- were first to identify the specific virus this month after it emerged in Mexico.

The Winnipeg lab then produced the necessary reagents to positively test for it.

While researchers in Winnipeg are feverishly working on tests for the Mexican government and for medical facilities across Canada, Dr. David Butler-Jones, chief public health officer of the PHAC, said there is no current risk of bursting beyond capacity.

"We don't have any issues with capacity at the moment," he said. "Particularly as more and more provinces are able to do this testing themselves -- that frees up our own capacity for assisting the Mexicans or in reference testing for cases in Canada."

Butler-Jones warned, however, that while attention is fixed on the raging virus, the lab must also be ready to step up and help solve any new emerging medical mysteries.

"Even though we're clearly focused on this H1N1 virus, we also have to be attentive at any time for the development of new infections, new viruses," he said. "So we're continuing to do that work."

The Winnipeg laboratory appears perfectly suited for the fight against H1N1. The research centre -- a member of the U.S. Bioterrorism Response Network -- had been selected for a reconstruction of the disastrous 1918 influenza virus.

ross.romaniuk@sunmedia.ca/kathleen.harris@sunmedia.ca

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Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory (NML):

- Officially opens in June 1999, to become one of 15 such high-security virus containment centres in the world, and part of the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health

- Dr. Frank Plummer named scientific director in October 2000

- Dr. David Butler-Jones named chief public health officer of the newly created Winnipeg-based Public Health Agency of Canada in September 2004

- Scientists delve into research of the H5 and H7 avian influenza strains in October 2004, then considered serious pandemic threats

- NML establishes database of DNA from cases of Clostridium difficile in November 2004 to help trace the bacterium's most severe strains, which killed about 600 Quebec residents over two years

- NML staff, in the spring of 2005, discover vaccines that protect monkeys from the deadly Ebola and Marburg viruses, which had killed hundreds of people in Africa

- NML sends scientists to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the fall of 2007 and again last December to help contain an Ebola virus outbreak

- A German researcher, after accidentally pricking herself with a needle when working with deadly Ebola earlier this spring, uses a vaccine created by NML scientists to protect herself from the virus. The vaccine had not been previously tested on humans


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