CBC In Depth
Winnipeg's fortress of deadly disease
CBC News Online | February 18, 2004

A Congolese woman lands at the airport in Toronto after a 21-hour flight that took her from Africa, via Rome and Newark, N.J., to Toronto. She couldn't eat on the flight and was weak and flushed with high fever. Doctors thought she may have had malaria, which is scary. Then they considered she may be suffering from the dreaded Ebola virus.

Turns out she probably hasn't been infected with Ebola, likely some other exotic disease. The results came from the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg, which contains one of the world's most secure laboratories for the testing of deadly diseases.

It is a Level-4 lab, one of 15 in the world, and the only one in Canada. The Congolese woman's blood and fluids were sent to Winnipeg for testing, also to Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Winnipeg's new virology lab – administered by Health Canada – cost $172 million and took 10 years to design and build. It took two years alone to build the concrete box that encloses the Level-4 lab. They waited a year for the massive, monolithic concrete to dry, then covered it with 30 coats of special paint, then covered the walls and floor with a layer of epoxy 7.5 centimetres thick.

What distinguishes the Winnipeg lab is that it is set up for both human and animal diseases, which is of vital importance as scientists uncover more evidence of human diseases transmitted from animals.

The first strains of lethal diseases arrived at the Winnipeg lab in the summer of 2000, a cargo of six of the most deadly viruses in the world. Small vials contained samples of Lassa, Marburg and Junin, with three strains of Ebola viruses, all flown in from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

But, if security requirements are so stringent, and the stuff so deadly, how is it so easily transported over great distances to the lab in Winnipeg? Dr. Ron St. John, Health Canada's executive director of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, says the vials are transported in safety packs, then secured in a triple-container and sealed.

"I would stress that these packages are designed to withstand tremendous impact," Dr. St. John explained. "In the famous Lockerbie crash the only package – the only thing to survive intact in that terrible airplane tragedy – was a safety pack that had an organism in it."

The Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg is located in the city's north end, on Arlington Street. Its laboratories are in four levels of containment, Level-1 being at about the safety requirements of a high school lab, Level-4 considered secure enough to test the world's deadliest viruses.

Much of the impetus for the Winnipeg lab – known locally as "the virology lab" – comes from a surge of new diseases in the 1980s, when two new strains of Ebola were discovered, and when the medical community took serious notice of the HIV-AIDS epidemic.

It is no cinch to build a Level-4 lab, and not just for design and construction challenges. A major problem is to get someone finally to sign off on the labs, which means to authorize them and guarantee that they are safe enough for the deadliest diseases in the world.

In 1976, a woman took sick at the Toronto airport and was taken to Etobicoke General Hospital where it was determined that she had contracted Lassa fever. This was enough of a scare to have the hospital shut down for a week.

The Ontario government responded by spending $5.8 million to build a Level-4 lab in Etobicoke. But neighbours complained, the new facility was never opened, and the Ontario government decided these types of facilities are a federal responsibility.

Another high-security lab was built at Toronto General Hospital, on the 11th floor of the Norman Urquhart Wing. It was sealed off from the rest of the hospital, with its own air supply and electrical system, with a special state-of-the-art particulate filtering system. A special team was trained to work in the isolation unit, intended to handle diseases as lethal as Lassa and Ebola fevers. It was completed in 1984, at a cost of $2 million.

But it never opened.

Vickery Stoughton, then president of Toronto General Hospital blamed it on what he called "bureaucratic ass-covering." Stoughton said government inspectors often arrived to check the new facility, but not one was willing to sign off on the guaranteed safety of a lab dealing with the deadliest diseases in the world.

"Instead, they'd recommend that another $100,000 or $200,000 be spent to make absolutely sure it's safe," Stoughton said.

One afternoon in his office, Stoughton seemed particularly upset at the sophisticated new lab lying idle for two years, at a time when the hot topics were health cutbacks and cost-cutting. I was with him that day.

"Sooner or later," Stoughton told me, looking down at his telephone as if it would start ringing as he spoke, "someone's going to ask, 'Why'd you spend all that money and just let it sit there?' I mean, The Toronto Sun would have a field day."


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