OTTAWA — Most Winnipeggers are proud to host the federal lab that developed the Ebola vaccine, a recent survey suggests, and a majority aren’t worried about a security breakdown.
The survey results, obtained by the Free Press before their official release, suggest that locals’ faith in the lab wasn’t shaken by media coverage about employees possibly being exposed to the high-risk diseases studied on-site.
The Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health at 1015 Arlington St. employs about 500 people, mostly scientists who perform diagnostic testing and research, on diseases ranging from the common flu to HIV.
The centre includes an animal-disease research lab as well as the National Microbiology Laboratory, which famously developed an Ebola vaccine that was rolled out in 2015 amid a West African outbreak.
That vaccine was the product of a biosafety Level 4 lab. It's the highest-security classification and it's given to labs specifically constructed to handle some of the world’s most aggressive infectious diseases.
In the first three months of this year, a private company surveyed 1,448 Winnipeggers aged 18 or older with 10 questions, reaching them mostly through landline phones, but also through mobile phones.
The survey found 71 per cent of respondents were aware of the lab, a drop from the 77 per cent awareness reported in a similar 2008 study. Some 89 per cent of respondents said they were proud to have the facility in Winnipeg, almost as many as nine years earlier.
"We really want people to know that we’re operating safely," said Kelly Keith, the lab’s director of client services. "The only way for us to really know that is to ask them directly."
Though it only makes up four per cent of the facility, the Level 4 area draws "considerable community interest," reads the report, which was submitted to the federal government in April.
"Its presence sometimes results in antagonism from the local population."
Keith says having the only Level 4 lab in Canada "creates a mystique around it, and we want make sure that people kind of understand the reality."
She says Level 4 lab employees have to be accompanied on their first 40 entries and exits, to make sure they understand protocols on heat, air pressure and protective clothing. "Safety and security are of paramount importance here."
The survey found 63 per cent of respondents weren’t concerned about the lab, though 10 per cent said they were "very concerned" by having a Level 4 facility in the city.
Those numbers didn’t change substantially over the course of the survey, even as news broke in early February about 14 cases of employees possibly being exposed to pathogens.
Keith stressed those were possible exposures, and that no one is known to have actually fallen ill (though the lab said one employee sustained an infection and recovered). She said she isn’t aware of more exposures since the October 2016 timeframe in the media report.
The report mentioned issues with biosafety suits, needle pricks and malfunctioning equipment. Keith says "there were several improvements made following the incident that led to that."
The survey also found little difference among the 214 respondents who live near the lab. "Those living closer to the lab did not show any heightened negative perceptions of the lab when compared to those living in other areas of Winnipeg," reads the report.
Half of respondents wanted more information about the lab. Keith said the lab focuses on reaching out to high-school students, because they wouldn’t remember its 1999 opening.
While the lab employs scientists from around the world, many are native Winnipeggers, and Keith encourages them to visit their children’s schools to explain the lab’s work.
The survey weighed responses with the 2011 National Household Survey — meaning it increased responses for men and people in their 20s; it did not factor in race or Indigenous heritage.
The company phoned almost 10 times the numbers of those who participated, but found 45 per cent of people refused, while other numbers led to fax machines and those not able to respond.
The Public Health Agency of Canada paid $22,050 for the survey, the results of which should be made public in September.