Lab 101: What does it take to house the world’s deadliest diseases?

Ebola, Lassa and Nipah – these viruses can cause some of the world’s deadliest diseases. Have you ever wondered how and where Canadian scientists research these extremely infectious pathogens? They are stored and handled in the highest level of biocontainment labs with the utmost standard of safety and security. These labs are called Containment Level 4 labs (CL4). Canada’s only CL4 labs are found in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health (CSCHAH).

CSCHAH is home to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease. It is the first facility in the world to have both human and animal CL4 labs under one roof.

Containment Level Basics

Diseases, viruses, and bacteria are researched, studied, and handled within labs that contain the appropriate level of safety and security measures to prevent illnesses and outbreaks. Containment levels are determined by the combination of safety measures present in a lab, including equipment and physical lab features. Levels build upon one another; the higher the containment level, the more safety measures are in place.

Most labs at CSCHAH are Containment Level 2 (CL2) and Containment Level 3 (CL3) with only around 5% of the lab space classified as CL4. While this may seem like a small portion, the research conducted in this facility is internationally recognized for leading the direction of infectious disease research.

Containment Level Differences

Photo: CL2 scientists working in the lab

CL2 scientists working in the lab

CL2 labs are very common and are often found in hospital settings. In these labs, the laboratory staff sterilize equipment and wear gloves, lab coats and protective eyewear. These labs also contain biosafety cabinets which protect from pathogen exposure. Pathogens worked on in CL2 labs are mostly spread through injection or ingestion. Some examples of pathogens kept in CSCHAH’s CL2 labs are herpes, E. coli and Salmonella.

Photo: A CL3 scientist working in personal protective equipment in a biosafety cabinet

A CL3 scientist working in personal protective equipment in a biosafety cabinet

CL3 labs have added safety and security measures because they contain more infectious pathogens like anthrax, tuberculosis and West Nile virus. Even a small dose of these pathogens can cause serious illness. The air in CL3 labs is purified and scientists must take showers before exiting. Like all levels, the waste is also disinfected before leaving the facility.

Photo: Scientist in a CL4 suit decontaminating waste

Scientist in a CL4 suit
decontaminating waste

For CL4 , the entire lab is built within extra walls to prevent a potential breach. Imagine it like a box-within-a-box. Scientists work with a dedicated breathing air supply and take chemical showers to decontaminate their suits. There are also layers of negative pressure zones – making sure the air always flows back into the lab when any doors are opened. When Canada must prepare for deadly global outbreaks of pathogens like Ebola, Lassa fever, and Nipah virus, CL4 labs are where the research is done.

Photo: HEPA filter room purifying the lab air

HEPA filter room purifying the lab air

No matter the lab level, every precaution is always taken to ensure the lab is safe and secure so that scientists can work to protect and improve the health of people in Canada and around the world.