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Internationally renowned Winnipeg lab fights avian influenza and other animal viruses with cutting-edge science

Scientists are often romanticized as working alone in a lab, carefully mixing solutions and writing notes until they make a discovery – eureka, look what I found! In reality, science requires a lot of information sharing and collaboration.

For example, it was thanks to their expertise and networks that scientists at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease (NCFAD) laboratory in Winnipeg discovered an outbreak of avian influenza, a deadly bird flu, in November 2014. This disease does not affect people, but can destroy flocks of chickens, turkeys and even pets, like budgies, love birds and parrots!

When farmers in British Columbia's Fraser Valley noticed a higher than usual death rate in their turkeys and chickens, they contacted CFIA to find out what was happening. Soon, scientists at NCFAD determined the birds were dying from (disease-causing) avian influenza virus. Scientists also determined that this particular outbreak was caused by a new strain of influenza--one that was a hybrid between a North American low-pathogenic strain and a European high-pathogenic strain.

A lot goes into identifying and tracking a virus like the one causing avian influenza. Knowing where a virus originates and how it changes over time is essential to the battle against infectious disease. Knowing the source of the infection helps researchers better understand how it started. It can also help them determine what vaccines and treatment are available or whether a new vaccine needs to be created. In the case of the 2014 outbreak, scientists were able to track the new virus to where it first broke in Asia and follow its path through Western Europe into North America. But how did they do that?

Solving cases like this requires specialized skills. It also requires virus samples and information from all over the world. Influenza viruses mutate quickly, and different areas of the world carry somewhat different versions. Influenza tests and vaccines need to be constantly evaluated and optimized based on the current circulating viruses. That is why sharing data about different virus strains with global partners is so important. The right tools make a big difference, too.

The NCFADin Winnipeg is the only lab in Canada that can work with live highly pathogenic viruses like avian influenza. There are not many labs like it, even in other countries. High-containment labs are very expensive and difficult to operate. The building has to be built in such a way that it will not be affected by power failures or any type of natural disaster. The air flow and pressure, water flow, temperature and power have to be constantly monitored. And the building must be constantly and rigorously certified and tested externally. Absolutely nothing can leave the building without being inactivated or decontaminated. Even scientists can only enter the lab through bioseal doors that are interlocked and operated with controlled airflow into the laboratory. Scientists have extensive training to learn how to work in this kind of environment without putting themselves or public safety at risk. The lab is part of an international network of high-containment labs known as the BSL4Z network (biosafety level 4 zoonotic laboratory network). The lab also has level 2 and 3 containment labs, based on the risk of the pathogens for individuals and communities. The level 4 lab is the highest containment level, and is currently the only animal health level 4 laboratory in North America. (For example, salmonella and E. coli require a level 2 lab, avian influenza and tuberculosis a level 3, and Ebola, a level 4. Learn more about Canadian biosafety standards and guidelines.

The Winnipeg lab is also the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) reference lab for highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses. This means the lab's scientists are international experts on avian influenza and are tasked with working on any scientific or technical problems relating to it. They collect information about the disease so that scientists can share the data with collaborators and networks around the world. It also allows them to support provincial labs and perform tests on avian influenza samples–keeping birds safe and helping protect the poultry industry.

Armed with specialized labs, extensive global information and specialized skills, CFIA scientists also help labs around the world fight disease. For example, the NCFAD avian unit is part of an "OIE Twinning" initiative, helping to set up labs in Africa (Ghana) and South America (Colombia). These labs will become regional diagnostic centres for influenza viruses in their countries. CFIA provides hands-on training in diagnostics methods, as well as instruction on how to use equipment and how to implement quality control measures. This international work also helps our Canadian scientists by providing a source of samples to study, training to recognize diseases that we don't have in Canada, and relationships for future projects.

Collaboration and communication are key to identifying and reducing the spread and devastation of deadly viruses, whether they affect birds, animals or humans. They are the cornerstone of all the scientific work happening at the NCFAD. As famed scientist Sir Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." That is just what scientists at CFIA do; collaborate with others to learn from their experience and knowledge and use this information to improve our own diagnostics, leading to improved animal health.

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