In 2008, I had the opportunity to tour the level 4 laboratory in Winnipeg Manitoba with my boss Preston Manning. In my day job, I am the science policy and communications adviser for the Manning Centre for Building Democracy and part of our mandate at the Centre is to track policy initiatives that move Canada forward on the science, technology and innovation front.
During our visit, we were briefed on the national integrated network of research facilities and the technology which innervates it all to rapidly respond to biological hotspots as they emerge in Canada and around the world. For example, rapid genotyping of pathogens to trace origin and spread is but one function of tracking function of the national lab in Winnipeg. Communication is critical to rapid assessment and control of biological threats and we were treated to a glimpse of where outbreaks are monitored in the state-of-the-art “war-room” of the facility complete with banks of LCD televisions, situation desks and and digital maps with epidemiological data overlays. While the facility serves to track and address global infectious disease, the research of level four biosafety pathogens such as the Marburg and Ebola viruses are at the foundation of the facility’s work.
Recently, I learned that the International Centre for Infectious Diseases and the University of Manitoba among others have forwarded an ambitious proposal for the upcoming federal budget which is getting a lot of buzz in the corridors of power in Ottawa. A level 5 laboratory (L5L) has been proposed for the Winnipeg facility and such an infrastructure development would make it the facility the only one of its kind in the world. The facility would continue to study biosafety level 4 pathogens but would do so in a sophisticated and unparalleled environment which would include a realistic hospital-like training facility, simulation facilities and a containment hospital ward replete with multiple airlocks.
Of course, Marburg and Ebola are of periodic global concern. From a Canadian public policy perspective, the greatest sustained value of the facility would be tracking, research and containment of hospital acquired infections such as C. difficile, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Vancomycin-resistant enterococcus. Hospital patients that acquire surgical infections find their survivability halved.
The proponents of the new facility project a 20% reduction in cases of hospital acquired infections by 2019. They suggest that over 30 years of innovation and subsequent intervention accomplished through work at the facility, over $40 billion (healthcare costs and would-be lost wages) would be saved.
I know that this proposal has been presented to the ministers of industry, health, transport (infrastructure) and the minister of state for science and technology. It has been well-received by many of them and I know that the proposal is being seriously considered. If the budget this month is to include significant infrastructure development, such a world-class project would solidify Canada’s position as a leader in the research and treatment of infectious disease. The $300 million facility would create highly skilled jobs, retain high value workers in Canada, export skills training to the US and overseas, provide testing facilities for commericial research and products and provide extensive support for the health services sector.