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 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 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 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.
-- The Canadian Press