Detecting diseases earlier: NML collaborates with developing countries to detect emerging pathogens

Viral hemorrhagic fevers, such as Ebola, Marburg and Lassa viruses, are an ongoing concern in many West African countries. Scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) are working with some of these nations to build their capacity to detect emerging pathogens through international collaboration. With scientists who are internationally recognized leading experts on viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHFs), the NML is uniquely positioned to provide this support.

Collaboration in research

The scientists who conduct this work are part of the NML’s Special Pathogens section that works inside of Canada’s only containment level 4 laboratory, the level of containment needed to handle these deadly viruses. Scientists from the group have received international recognition for their groundbreaking research that includes developing the Ebola vaccine. Due to the increased complications of travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, the scientists have remained in Canada. Since they were not able to travel to West Africa in person, they instead worked with their partners to share their expertise through collaborative research studies and diagnostic support.

These collaborations look at the ecology and epidemiology of these deadly infectious diseases, helping to prevent viral disease outbreaks and prepare these regions for outbreaks through fostering information networks, communication and collaborative relationships. On average, these regions see several outbreaks a year, infecting and killing thousands of people.

“By detecting these diseases earlier and more frequently where they are arising and strengthening public health responses in all areas of the world, we can help contain outbreaks and prevent these diseases from coming to Canada,” says Dr. David Safronetz, Chief of Special Pathogens at the NML.

Sharing resources

The NML is sharing testing materials that were prepared in-house with international health authorities to assist in the diagnosis of emerging infectious diseases in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Mali.

In collaboration with Global Affairs Canada, the NML is training scientists in Sierra Leone to safely handle and store specimens. In Nigeria, they are providing diagnostic support during Lassa fever outbreaks that re-occur annually. In Mali, the NML is working with partners in multiple centres to build capacity for testing ecological specimens from samples collected from small rodents, mosquitoes and other animals. They test the samples to get an idea of what pathogens might be circulating in local fauna, but have not yet been diagnosed in humans. These tests detect known pathogens, such as Ebola, but can also alert the scientists to other unknown pathogens that are not yet well studied.

“It is important to build up this testing capacity, because while it might in some cases be that these pathogens are rare, it might also be because the country does not yet have the diagnostic capabilities in place to safety identify these different diseases,” says Dr. Safronetz.

These partnerships also build Canada’s biosecurity capabilities since the NML runs their own diagnostics on these pathogens in parallel. International travel makes our borders smaller, and viruses are only a plane ride away. If, for example, an imported case of Lassa fever is detected in Canada, the NML can be confident that its diagnostic tests would pick it up accurately and quickly, helping to protect the health of Canadians and prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases in Canada and around the world.

A history of working collaboratively

The NML has a history of working with global public health by responding to international outbreaks at the request of partners such as the World Health Organization and its global outbreak response networks, Doctors without Borders, and the ministries of health in affected countries. They have provided support for numerous outbreaks over the years including the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa (Sierra Leone and Guinea) and the original SARS outbreak and investigation in Asia.

Scientists at the NML have been leading the way on research into VHFs for years. Testing for VHFs requires level 4 containment, meaning they must be stored and handled in the highest level of biocontainment labs with the utmost standard of safety and security (read more here). The idea of mobile labs formed at the NML when staff, in the early years of the program, developed the concept of travelling with lightweight equipment to perform diagnostics safely on samples of suspected cases in different places.

“As a scientist, it is a privilege to collaborate with other countries to expand our knowledge around VHFs and emerging pathogens and help to save lives,” says Dr. Safronetz.