A glimpse into Canada’s highest containment laboratory for animal health: The National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases

October 22, 2018 | Canadian Food Inspection Agency | by Loren Matheson, April Killikelly, Bradley Pickering

High consequence pathogens, such as those that cause hemorrhagic fevers or pandemic influenza, have the potential to significantly impact human health, animal health as well as our Canadian economy. The mandate of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) includes work on foreign animal diseases such as these in order to contribute to our country’s preparedness and response planning. This work covers all aspects of risk assessment, prediction, prevention, detection as well as restoration and recovery after a potential disease outbreak. 

The National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases (NCFAD) in Winnipeg is a specialized laboratory meticulously designed for working with these devastating pathogens. Before stepping into its highest containment laboratory (the only animal health BSL4 laboratory in North America), scientists don positive pressure suits, entering the lab through bioseal doors which are interlocked to provide directional airflow into the laboratory. Extensive training is required to work in this unique environment to ensure the safety of employees and the public. High containment laboratories are expensive and difficult to run, essentially designed as a building within a building, meant to withstand power failures, earthquakes and all other types of natural disasters. There are fail safes for fail safes. Everything within these laboratories requires constant monitoring: such as air flow and pressure, water flow, temperature and power. Nothing leaves the building without decontamination and thorough monitoring. These buildings are subjected to consistent and rigorous external testing and certification to ensure all biosafety parameters are met prior to pathogen-use in the laboratory space.

Only a few countries in the world have the monetary and scientific resources to develop a high containment laboratory program and of those, specific facilities are often designed to focus on pathogens that affect either human health or animal health. This distinction may be due to the different model species, techniques, or mandate of the institution. Despite the different stakes of these communities, they are linked to each other thorough zoonoses. Zoonoses are infectious diseases which jump from an animal host or reservoir into humans. Examples of these types of high consequence pathogens include Ebolavirus, MERS, Pandemic Influenza virus, Nipah virus and Hendra virus. It is estimated that 60-80% of newly emerging pathogens that effect humans are zoonotic in origin and are introduced into the human health system from an animal source.

The CFIA leads an international group of government labs called the Biological Safety Level 4 Zoonotic Disease Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet). BSL4ZNet is a coordinated global alliance of high containment labs that seek to address the increasing threat posed by emerging and re-emerging zoonotic infectious diseases. This network separates itself from other global networks as it provides a One Health approach bridging human and animal health while emphasising zoonotic disease, with a real focus on work in the laboratory. Of significant importance, is the pursuance of establishing best practices and safety procedures to provide the best protection for individuals working in high containment. Furthermore, the network aims to integrate sample sharing and generation of scientific knowledge transfer which promotes collaboration. In September, 2018 BSL4ZNet was presented during the keynote address at the Canadian Association of Biological Safety Symposium. The network was well received, and it is clear that there is great interest in the global coordination to address these complex challenges.

Learn more about science at the CFIA.