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Canada's national lab to work on H7N9 flu virus; sample likely arrives next week

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TORONTO - If all goes according to plan, a vial containing the worrisome new H7N9 virus should arrive at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, where scientists are eager to begin work on the new pathogen.

Scientific Director Dr. Frank Plummer said China readily agreed to share a sample with the Canadian lab after Winnipeg asked for live virus with which to work. In fact, the emailed request drew a positive reply in a matter of a couple of hours.

"I was extremely pleased when I saw the response from China. All they wanted was an official letter and they were getting ready to send it to us," Plummer said in an interview.

In contrast to its secretive behaviour during the 2003 SARS outbreak, China has been openly sharing information and virus samples since the start of the outbreak of the new H7N9 flu. As of Friday, China had reported 91 confirmed infections and 17 deaths from a virus first identified less than a month ago.

All of the World Health Organization's collaborating centres and essential regulatory laboratories for influenza have had copies of the virus for more than a week. And elsewhere, key influenza researchers are also getting samples of the virus to help in the international effort to decode the mysteries of this new flu strain.

Plummer said his lab's willingness to share the H1N1 virus with China in the early days of the 2009 pandemic probably contributed to China's prompt and favourable response to Canada's request.

The national lab director said the Winnipeg facility is also growing up a synthesized version of the virus, put together from genetic sequence data that China has shared through an international databank known as GISAID. While that's both great practice and a fallback in case the Chinese sample is delayed, Plummer said having the real thing is important.

"Genome sequence is great, it allows you to do certain things. But it only gets you so far. You need the whole virus," he said, adding Canada has also asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for a sample of H7N9.

Earlier this week a joint assessment issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency decreed that the H7N9 virus should be worked on in laboratories with a Level 3-enhanced biosafety and biosecurity designation. But Plummer said NML scientists are probably going to work with it in a laboratory with an even higher designation in some cases.

Level 4 laboratories are equipped to the highest degree of biosafety and biosecurity; between Levels 4 and 3 is Level 3-enhanced, which is sometimes called Level 3 Ag (short for agriculture). Plummer said Level 3-enhanced is basically Level 4, without the spacesuit type gear worn in Level 4.

Plummer said scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory will likely start work on the virus in Level 4 facilities, because that is where there is spare capacity at this point. "We'll be working probably above the recommended levels — not necessarily because we're worried about it, just for logistical reasons."

Some of the work will likely also take place in the laboratories of CFIA's National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases, NML's animal health counterpart. The two national labs share the Winnipeg facility and the CFIA's centre has more lab space with animal containment facilities. Some of the work the Winnipeg scientists want to do involves testing the host range of the virus in animals.

Plummer said other work his team wants to do includes developing antibody tests for the virus, as well as work on novel vaccines.

These types of projects are already underway at other labs around the world. But Plummer insisted it is important that Canada contribute to the science that is emerging on this virus.

"I don't think I'm bragging when I say NML is one of the best labs in terms of physical infrastructure and scientific capacity," he said.

"My belief is we have an obligation to jump in and contribute what we can, and not stand by and wait for the Americans to do it or the Brits to do it or the Chinese to do it. We need to be doing it ourselves as a contribution to the global effort to solve this problem."

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