Safety at the National Virology Lab in Winnipeg

In recent weeks the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has come under criticism for unsafe practices that resulted in possibly exposing people to rare and deadly pathogens. Lax security, inventory methods and complacency have been cited as some of the main reasons. Whatever the cause, the result was that small pox, anthrax and other infectious agents were not handled properly.

There are only a handful of facilities in the world at Level 4 containment for world’s deadliest pathogens. The CDC lab in Atlanta is one, the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg is another.

The combined facility in Winnipeg is called the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health. It is the first facility of its kind to combine two laboratories for human and animals. The National Microbiology is run by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease is run for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Ground was broken on the lab near the Health Sciences Centre on Arlington Street in 1992 and work was completed in 1997. Public consultations were held to address fears about a national lab so close to homes in the city. The site had previously held a city works yard dedicated to road construction materials. There have been subsequent additions but the facility now houses 500 federal employees.

The fears people had were talked about at great length and emphasis was placed on how safe and secure the buildings were.

Shortly after the official opening in 1999, the building had a leak where waste water made its way into the city system. This was something that was not supposed to happen but did again in 2000. More serious was a collision that took place in 2005 with a Fed Ex vehicle. It was learned that the courier was transporting deadly pathogens including flu, tuberculosis and anthrax. Streets were closed all over as the intact cases from the collision were gathered. In 2008, around 30 lab staff had to be given antibiotics after being exposed to anthrax.

A liaison office at the virology lab is supposed to issue a report once a year but that ended in 2005.

The story at the Centers for Disease Control demonstrates that safety and security have to be regularly reviewed. There are deadly pathogens each year that race around the globe. Research after 9/11 is happening more and more. Often work is being done through a multitude of labs and handlers.

Winnipeg should not blandly look at the virology lab and think it is exempt from scrutiny. Thousands of people die each year in Canada and the U.S. of infectious agents.

It is time to revisit the safety of Canada’s level 4 virology lab.

This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations