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Working with the world's deadliest diseases

"No one in their wildest dreams expected the pandemic. Our scope was mostly: okay, how can we prepare better for an emerging disease? But when COVID-19 came, what it showed was the world was unprepared, by and large, except for in the laboratory space. I was so happy to see how well the laboratories were able to respond, in terms of coming together."

Dr. Primal Silva, Chief Science Operating Officer at the CFIA

"If you're going to go into the lab, it takes time to get in and then it takes time to get out. So if you drank too much coffee and you need to get out, you want to make sure you have enough time to go through the chemical shower, right?"

Dr. Brad Pickering, Head of the Special Pathogens Unit at the CFIA's Winnipeg laboratory

In this podcast, we hear about a network connecting laboratories across the world. What is it like to be one of these scientists studying deadly viruses like COVID-19, Ebola and Anthrax?

Working with the world's deadliest diseases – Audio Transcript

Dr. Brad Pickering (guest): The pathogens, the ones that we work on, typically don't have any countermeasures. So they don't have drugs or vaccines or antibody therapies. So we'll be working with things like Ebola viruses. We're on the animal side, but we work with zoonotic viruses, so zoonotic, meaning things jumping from animals to people. So similar to what you know, the origins of COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, if you've ever seen the movie Contagion, Matt Damon, right? They got the bats and the pigs and then the people, that's sort of a potential real world scenario.

Michelle Strong (co-host): Brilliant minds studying the world's most dangerous pathogens may seem like science fiction, but these facilities and the scientists who protect us from bio threats are very real.

Dr. Primal Silva (guest): At biosafety level 4 means we want to work with certain types of pathogens that can actually infect humans. So Level 4 is the maximum level of protection. We actually recognize the need to work together with other biosafety level 4 laboratories. They were simply too big a task for one laboratory or one country.

Greg Rogers (co-host): I'm Greg.

Michelle: And I'm Michelle.

Greg: This is Inspect and Protect, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's official podcast.

Michelle: BSL4Z Network, is short for…get ready…the Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network. Ok, that was a bit of a mouthful.

Greg: The BSL4Z Network was established by the CFIA in 2016 to improve biosurveillance, develop trust and enhance knowledge sharing worldwide.

Michelle: They connect animal and human health organizations from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States and Canada.

Greg: Basically, it's science diplomacy in action. Dr. Primal Silva, co-chair of the network and Chief Science Operating Officer for the CFIA, is here to chat with us today.

Primal: Back in 2016, we actually recognized the need to work together to enhance collaboration and our preparedness against emerging pathogens. And what was different was we reached out to both animal health laboratories and human health laboratories because, if you're to work on emerging diseases, most of them are zoonotic, you got to work with both types of laboratories and pathogens. So we invited scientists and decision makers from 17 such laboratories, and we discuss in terms of: wouldn't it be a great idea if we were to work together?

Greg: It's kind of like the International Space Station, but for high level biosecurity kind of science?

Primal: Yeah, that's a good analogy. Actually, I like that.

Michelle: We really wanted to know what it was like to work around the world's deadliest diseases, so we reached out to Dr. Brad Pickering, a scientist working at our Winnipeg lab.

Brad: I work at the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health. It's a unique lab. It's the only biosafety level 4 facility in Canada at this time.

Michelle: Brad's the Head of the Special Pathogens Unit. He offered to walk us through a day at his job.

Brad: In order to get into the lab, you have to wear a suit, so it's kind of like if you're going to go skydiving, you want to make sure you, you know, you fold and your parachutes ready to go. You want to make sure it's working properly, right? So we have to do that before we go into the containment area. So we lay that out. We make sure there's no leaks. We've got good gloves, things like that. We also communicate with radios, so we always have somebody on a radio outside. We've got a way where you can talk to somebody outside, right? And they say, OK, yeah, I'll bring it. And you know, they can dunk it through these dunk tanks, which is a disinfectant. So it's a way of getting things in if you forget something. And inevitably that always happens.

Greg: You got to make sure you have your bathroom break before you go in.

Brad: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, don't drink too much coffee, right? So because it's not a quick exit either, right? So if you're going to go into the lab, you've got your safety test for your suit and then you're going to put it on. You're going to radio, communicate, make sure everything is good and then you'll go through walk through a chemical shower or walk into the lab and then you'll get to work. And like you said, I mean, you're in there for whatever time you need, but it takes time to get in and then it takes time to get out.

Michelle: I like your example. It's like skydiving, skydiving Brad just jumps out of the plane and: oh no, I forgot something! What do you think would surprise most people about this world's highest containment lab that you work at?

Brad: You know, I think the perception is…I mean, it is an advanced area and there's a lot of safety, but a lot of the work that we're doing is generally the same as what you do anywhere else. It's just that we have to wear these suits, right? So you're in this area, you're in a positive pressure suit and you're working with all these things. And some people don't like wearing a suit. So that's one of the things you have to find out whether you feel claustrophobic or not.

Michelle: Oh, fair.

Brad: So that's important, it's not for everybody. They get in and they're going: ok, I'm on a breathing hose, I'm not really comfortable. Or they are! So that's something that you have to kind of mentally get through and make sure you're connecting to the air, disconnecting from the air…

Michelle: You were mentioning pathogens and you know, they're the world's deadliest, let's say, zoonotic pathogens. Like, tell us about this research.

Brad: The pathogens, like I mentioned before, the ones that we work on typically don't have any countermeasures. Nipah virus along with Ebola virus. We also work with Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever. So that's another hemorrhagic disease. This is in the Middle East spread by ticks, which seems to be increasing in numbers, and it's a problem more for public health. But they have these Hyalomma ticks, and they're kind of like wolves. If you ever watch a video of them, they are super fast and, you know, they kind of crawl towards you. So if you don't like ticks, you wouldn't like these guys. And so you can imagine, if they're on the animal and you're working with them, they'll just kind of run on to you. And if you get a tick bite, then now, you know, you might get infected.

Michelle: That sounds...terrifying! Have you ever been surprised when you were in there? Like, oh, this is new to me.

Brad: So it's funny because there's animal diseases that actually make animals really sick. So, you know, African swine fever virus makes swine really sick. Ebola virus is not nearly as bad as African swine fever virus in pigs. Where you'd go, Oh, man, this is ebolavirus like it's going to be terrible, but in that pig, it's not nearly as bad. So I always find that interesting that you see these animals really, I guess hardy, right? They are really able to deal with a lot of things there constantly and, you know, more of a say, adverse natural conditions than people who are always sanitizing cleaning and yeah, they're able to handle a lot. So I think that's interesting of seeing the results of these animals when they're dealing with these high consequence viruses.

Greg: I have kind of another weird question, but like when we say, you know, we say African swine fever isn't transmissible to humans or that kind of stuff like, how is that scientifically proven? Is it just observed that it doesn't happen? I mean, presumably we don't put a pig in a human in the same room and just wait to see what happens like we see in TV and sci-fi all the time kind of thing. Like how do we how do we determine that?

Brad: Yeah, I mean, I think most of this is through observation, right? So African swine fever has been around for a really long time, and there's never been a documented case of someone getting sick. Same with a number of other diseases that are not zoonotic, right? So they just stay with the animals, and that's it. So people can give diseases to animals just like animals can give disease to us. And really, that's a concern that we get with SARS-CoV-2. So if you're looking at recent studies in the United States and white tailed deer, you know, they're finding these positive animals in the states. And so now that kind of gets you to the point saying, well, it didn't originate in the deer. So where did it come from? Likely people, right? We are the main, you know, hamster running on the wheel for continuing the propagation of COVID-19. So we're the biggest factor. So where are we spreading it and where is it going?

Michelle: That's interesting. So do you work on a lot of COVID related research?

Brad: Obviously, since that hit about a year and a half or 2 years ago, almost now? We've had a number of projects and so we've got a collaborative project where we're looking at a nanoparticle vaccine with some collaborators at the University of Quebec, in Montreal. And so we're looking at trying to, you know, develop a vaccine and really look into something called antibody dependent enhancement. The idea being that, you know, on a first infection, so this is what happens in dengue fever is you don't have much of a reaction often. And then the second infection, actually, the antibodies that your body makes will help that virus come in and it actually enhances the disease. And so one of the concerns early on is, you know, for people that were to get a natural infection or if you were to vaccinate, would that vaccine actually enhance a real infection? And so that was something that we were trying to and are looking at most of the studies right now, clinical wise, there hasn't been showing any of that, which is great. That's one of the projects we're looking at. We're also looking at a drug project with an industry partner in the Public Health Agency of Canada to try and use to treat COVID. So that's been ongoing. And you know, it looks like there's some promising results there, which I think is pretty interesting.

You know, we've got another, I guess, technology that we've been working on for a while. So it's a rapid test that we're trying to work on. You go to the nurse, take it, get sent to a lab. They do a test that is using a reverse transcriptase quantitative PCR assay. So we're working on this CRISPR assay, which would be you could set it up where you are. You could take the swab, put it into a tube, put it into a machine. You'd have results and say, you know, 15, 20 minutes, and it would be about the same as that, right? So you can imagine airports, things like that. I think this could be really important as we, I mean, COVID is not going anywhere. So I think, you know, it'll be really useful. And the other part of this technology is, you can use it for any pathogen, right? So if we can get this setup to work well, if there's influenza, if there's something else, we could actually tailor it to work for that…

Greg: So can I ask, do you think the BSL4Z Network, having been established since 2016, helped prepare for the COVID crisis?

Brad: With the network we had like early on when the pandemic first happened? There is no country that had an isolate of the virus. Right. So if you don't have the isolate, you can't do any work with it other than just detect it. One of the first places that was part of the network actually was Australia. They were able to isolate SARS-CoV-2, and because there was a collaboration there, you know, they were really helpful in sharing the isolate with these partner laboratories, which really gives a boost to everybody, right? Sharing it in a network like that can actually boost countries' ability to diagnose, ability to make antibodies. To do all these different types of things is really important. And so I think, you know, you have strength in that collaboration to be able to do that.

Michelle: Knowing that the network helped prepare for COVID, it really highlights the importance of science diplomacy, but the effort to connect animal and human health organizations across the world is only just starting. Greg and I spoke again with Dr. Primal Silva to better understand the next steps.

Greg: So this is kind of a huge question, but what would you say that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about research and collaborating, and science diplomacy?

Primal: It is about actually reaching out to like-minded players globally and to establish trusted partnerships during peacetime. It's really important that we actually do this during peacetime because you can have meaningful conversations about what type of collaboration should we have. What kinds of preparations should we have, what kind of training? We should we have... It's very hard to do this during a crisis because everyone is in a very reactive mode. So the diplomacy for us was always, reach out to trusted partners and put the right mechanisms in place and build the trust among the partners so that it is a very simple call. You don't need clearance from top of the governments or anything like that to reach out to the parties because it's already a prearranged mechanism that we have. So having worked like this together, it actually helped all the laboratories, not just Canada. We actually have an inventory of all the scientists with their expertise that became very useful with the coronaviruses because we immediately knew who were the experts in this field across the lab network, for example.

Greg: It seems like it's just uncannily good timing that this network like that was set up right before COVID hit.

Primal: It is actually so true. No one in the wildest dream and expected the pandemic, I have to say. I mean, we our scope was mostly, OK, how can we prepare better for an emerging disease? While we always thought we should prepare for a pandemic, you know, it seemed to be such a distant kind of a thing from reality. Yeah, so but when it really came, what it showed was the world was unprepared, by and large, except for, I think, in the laboratory space. I was so happy to see how well the laboratories were able to respond, like in terms of coming together. And that mobilized a huge research effort worldwide too. And that's why I think we saw the emergence of vaccines in record time, very efficacious vaccine, several candidate vaccines that that became available within a year. So it's kind of unheard of progress because the science community was prepared. It's not only just because of BSL4ZNet, there are many other laboratories who actually were positioning themselves for future.

Greg: Thanks Primal and Brad for chatting with us today. To end our episode, let's listen in to the BSL4ZNet conference held online this fall.

Michelle: You're going to hear the voice of Dr. Debbie Eagles, as she touches on the importance of open and transparent communication with both international partners and the public. She's the Deputy Director for the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness.

Dr. Debbie Eagles (conference speaker): I think that transparency piece is important, but I'm not pretending that it's easy. It's incredibly important that we are transparent about the work that we do, that we're comfortable to talk about any of the work that we're doing. And that includes, for example, you know, work with animals. We may in the past not have been so comfortable to talk about it. But if we're comfortable to do the research, then we should be comfortable and transparent about talking about it. I think again that developing that relationship with, for example, our local media or our national media around all the work that we're doing from a positive perspective is again really important. Such that during a pandemic, it isn't a case of looking at us going: we don't know what you're doing, we haven't heard of you before. So I think being proactive and open about that at all times, not just during a pandemic, is incredibly important.

Greg:This is Inspect and Protect, the CFIA's official podcast where we like to talk about food safety, plant health and animal health, and now the world's deadliest diseases too. I guess you can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and probably whichever other app you like.

For more information on the BSL4Z Network, Dr. Silva and Dr. Pickering, check out our episode description. See you next time.

[End of recording]

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