Fall 2014

 

Fighting the West African Ebola outbreak on all levels

By Dr. Jim Strong and Dr. Trina Racine

The current Ebola outbreak, which has been raging in West Africa since January, has killed more people in the last 10 months than all previous outbreaks combined. Despite the demonstrated risks and high mortality rate associated with the disease, there are presently no approved vaccines or treatment for Ebola virus infection and the current standard of care is limited palliative treatment. As the world turns to the scientific community for answers, Canadian scientists find themselves at the forefront of the fight against this terrible disease.

With extensive support from the former CBRNE Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI) and the current Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) for more than a decade, the Special Pathogens program at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg has developed enhanced diagnostic tools, a prophylactic vaccine and a post-exposure therapy that have proved effective in either preventing or treating an Ebola infection in animal models.

In 2001, the Special Pathogens program was first awarded funds to produce monoclonal antibodies to be used as a diagnostic tool in the identification of filoviruses. Not only was this endeavour successful, it also resulted in the use of these antibodies as a post-exposure therapy in non-human primates (NHPs). Subsequent funding in 2010 was then awarded to produce clinical grade antibodies to be used in human clinical trials.

“While diagnosing and treating an Ebola infection are important, preventing an infection is also of utmost importance if we are to prevent future outbreaks like the one in West Africa” says Dr. Gary Kobinger, Chief of Special Pathogens at the Public Health Agency of Canada. With financial support from CSSP, the Special Pathogens program at the NML has developed a vaccine that is 100% effective in preventing Ebola virus infection in NHPs. This vaccine is the focus of an ongoing phase I clinical trial and if proven safe, will be deployed to West Africa where it will be tested on a larger scale in front-line health care workers.

Prior to the start of the outbreak in West Africa, the Special Pathogens program, again with the support of CSSP, started a community development project to establish a High Consequence Pathogen Treatment Unit. The purpose of this unit is to create a high containment Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to provide training to both laboratory technicians and front-line health care workers on the proper handling of patients infected with level 4 pathogens such as Ebola. Initial experiments have gone very well, providing training as planned and proof of concept for this project.

With the outbreak in West Africa and ongoing threats of imported cases, (and two realized in the United States), interest in this High Consequence Pathogen Treatment Unit project has now spread to other Canadian hospitals and internationally.

We have had many requests from external agencies for participation in these studies. The NML is unique in the world with this capability and plans for expansion of these studies are currently underway. The results of this project should provide insight into patient management as well as creating a team skilled in the provision of this high containment ICU care. The work being done at the NML shows great promise to help end the outbreak in West Africa and prevent its further spread by tackling the problem on all levels; a vaccine for prophylactic use, monoclonal antibodies to treat those infected, and enhanced training on the treatment of infected individuals for health-care workers and level 4 lab staff.

Dr. Jim Strong is Head of Diagnostics and Therapeutics for the Special Pathogens Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory. Dr. Trina Racine is a Biologist, also with the Special Pathogens Program.

 


Where There's Fire, There's Smoke

By Kerry Anderson

Every year Canada typically experiences 8,000 forest fires resulting in dozens of evacuations of communities due to smoke. Health alerts impacting the lives of millions of Canadians are issued each summer due to the negative health effects of smoke exposure. Industries and tourism are also affected by smoke.

The 2014 fire season was exceptionally severe, with fires raging in British Columbia (B.C.) and in the Northwest Territories (N.W.T). End of season estimates suggest a total of 4,883 fires burned 4,607,677 hectares (or 46 thousand square kilometres) -- an area which is equivalent to 80% the size of Nova Scotia. This was the worst season since 1998 (4,614,287 ha) and a record-breaking one for the N.W.T. One of the major impacts of these fires was the smoke that blanketed much of western Canada for the months of July and August. Several air quality advisories were issued from BC to Manitoba for urban centres such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Kamloops, Prince Albert, Yellowknife and others.

The ability to track and forecast the movement of smoke is critical to developing these advisories and ensuring that Canadians have access to the information they need to make decisions that impact their health and safety.

The BlueSky Canada Project

The importance of smoke forecasting was recognized by governmental agencies and an effort to create a smoke forecasting system was initiated. In 2007, a workshop was held in Edmonton, which included provincial and federal agencies in charge of resource management, public health, and the environment. This led to an initial strategy, which aimed to test the BlueSky modeling framework, a system developed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), in Canada. A prototype system was implemented at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and smoke forecasts for British Columbia and Alberta were initiated in August 2010.

In 2012, four federal and provincial agencies submitted a proposal to the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) to support the development of the BlueSky Canada project: a smoke forecasting system that predicts smoke from wildland fires, which was accepted in 2013. The system produces smoke forecasts for all of Canada south of the Arctic Ocean. Forecasts are produced twice a day using the latest forest fire information. The system is able to handle information about thousands of fires and process data on the emissions, transport and dispersion of smoke in concert with weather forecasts. These smoke forecasts are available to the public at FireSmoke.ca. There were a quarter of a million views of this website during the 2014 fire season – an indicator of the importance and relevance of smoke forecasting to Canadians.

BlueSky Canada operates out of the Geophysical Disaster Computational Fluid Dynamics Center at UBC. It involves a team of fire and meteorological experts from Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada, Parks Canada, British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Alberta Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, and UBC.

Kerry Anderson is a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada working out of the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton, Alberta.

 


Supporting Operational Acquisitions through CSSP Investment

By Paul Hubbard

One of the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) roles is to generate the necessary science and technology (S&T) based evidence to support informed decision-making related to public safety and security issues. The Government of Canada’s Budget 2014 allocated $91.7 million over five years to enhance the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) ability to combat cross border criminality in high risk border zones by “building on recent investments”. This refers largely to investments made under the CSSP and its precursor programs in four different areas: Maritime Radar, Geospatial Intelligence, Sonar, and Thermal Cameras.

Maritime Radar

A feasibility study was funded, in 2009-2010, through the former Public Security Technical

Program led by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS). A key finding highlighted that there was little surveillance capability present in the Great Lakes, especially for small vessels and low-flying aircraft. The same project identified existing licensed emitters (for weather and navigation, primarily) that could be used for such surveillance. Subsequently, in 2010, another pilot project was funded to re-purpose these radars to provide maritime traffic feeds for Toronto’s harbour area during the 2010 G20 Summit. These investments proved so valuable to the operators that the RCMP provided on-going support to the same industrial partner to continue data feeds from the sensor information network in the following years.

 Geospatial Intelligence

The new sensor information network brought with it a new challenge: how to manage the vast amount of sensor data and improve dispatching. As a result, the CSSP invested in a collaborative effort with the RCMP Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs) and partners to explore how a map-view can be used to collect sensor information into a layered geospatial common operating picture; a tool that enables better situational awareness and more effective self-dispatching. The CSSP is also currently funding a pilot project to bring the Canada-United States Shiprider vessels into the sensor information network to improve coordination and further reduce response times.

Sonar

The CSSP also explored the use of underwater acoustics with hydrophones to detect maritime traffic. Based on initial research done at DRDC’s Atlantic Research Centre, CSSP funded small pilot projects to test the operation of prototypes in Ontario and British Columbia lakes and rivers. These pilot projects answered key risk questions such as whether the sensors work in high traffic zones or in moving water, whether they can transmit over large distances from remote locations, and whether they can operate for a full season without refurbishment.

More importantly, the projects demonstrated the cost savings available when using unattended sensors to indicate activity, which can then cue interdiction operations.

Thermal Cameras

In 2011, CSSP funded a study to explore the use of a state-of the-art laser-gated all-weather camera. This was a perfect example of reducing the risks associated with the introduction of new technologies through an evaluation. In this case, the assessment allowed us to discover that these cameras were too difficult to manage from a life-cycle perspective. Instead, CSSP funded a technology acquisition project to try out existing operational military day/night cameras. These proved to be effective, manageable, and sustainable.

Evidence-based investments

The investments to enhance RCMP capabilities in the fight against cross border criminality built on the technology developments outlined above and are designed to enhance intelligence-led policing efforts. Specifically, the RCMP’s Border Integrity Technology Enhancement Project (BITEP) will include the creation of a Geospatial Intelligence and Automated Dispatch Centre system and the deployment of an associated range of sensor devices to detect movement across the border in high risk areas.

“This is a really good illustration of the value of making judicious investments in knowledge generation through S&T in order to inform significant operational decisions”, said Dr. Williamson, Acting Director General for DRDC CSS. This and other CSSP examples are making a difference across Canada’s safety and security landscape and our staff and partners can be rightly proud of their contributions”, added Dr. Williamson.

The CSSP continues to work with various partners from different public safety and national security fields to support the development of knowledge, tools, processes, advice and strategies that are essential for safeguarding Canada, its people, institutions and infrastructure.

Paul Hubbard is the Portfolio Manager for Border and Maritime Security at DRDC CSS.

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