Western University in London, Ont., is building a unique research lab to study humanity’s greatest viral threats — a secret weapon, if you will, one that it’s expected would put Canada and the world in a better position if and when the next pandemic happens.

“[This is] the next level, in terms of having a facility that really can make a difference,” said Western Prof. Eric Arts, the Canada Research Chair in HIV pathogenesis and viral control who will be executive director of the new Pathogen Research Centre (PRC).

“This will be absolutely amazing and will change the whole dynamic of the way we approach these problems.”

Set to be built within the next two years, the PRC will be almost like a department of viral defence — part simulated battleground and part arsenal — that will allow scientists to study how germs spread in human environments and develop new defences against them, with the hope of stopping the next pandemic before it begins.

Testing viruses in simulated human settings

The new lab is receiving $16 million in federal funding. It’s part of a wider series of grants announced this month by the Canada Foundation for Innovation for eight universities, in an effort to keep the country at the forefront of the science of preventing local outbreaks from becoming global health disasters.

A rendering shows how the new Pathogen Research Centre at Western University would look. Not only would the public be able to peer inside the lab to get a glimpse at the work, but the machinery that helps keep researchers safe would be exposed, so it can be modified for different experiments. (Western University)

“The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated the importance of cutting-edge research in infectious diseases” and “ensuring labs meet standards and are well equipped to combat new challenges in biosciences,” Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president and chief executive officer of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, said in a news release.

What makes the PRC so unique is its mission to understand how viruses spread in real human environments with realistic conditions, such as airplane cabins, hospital operating rooms, even public bathrooms.

Arts said his team is looking to pinpoint the exact conditions that would explain the kinds of superspreader events that made headlines during the tensest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re actually spraying the virus in a room, which contains for example a slice of airline cabin, and we’ll have mock passengers, like mannequins in these seats that do normal breathing.”

To make mannequins breathe, Arts and his team use artificial lungs lined with the same cells found in the real thing, and then pump air into them at the same respiration rate and air pressure that happens during normal breathing. This is done to better understand how wind flow, humidity, temperature and even different surfaces affect transmission.

“By doing so, we can look at how to protect people from infection too. We’ll know how to do it more effectively.”

Lab to have world’s ‘only seed vaccine bank’

The global COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, and caused widespread economic losses as people stayed home from work and shopping to avoid spreading the virus.

“We were struggling in Canada because we didn’t have these facilities to produce these vaccines. Unlike most G7 countries, which had the ability to produce their own vaccine, Canada was lacking, and so there is a great need for facilities to respond very rapidly,” Arts said.

Many at the time were astonished and vexed at how a virus could have caught the finest minds in medicine so flat-footed. It’s why Arts said the other half of Western’s new PRC will be dedicated to defences to emergent viruses, before they even happen.

“We have a large team that is establishing the only seed vaccine bank in the world, meaning that we’re going to have stocks of vaccines stored in our freezer, thousands and thousands of them that will be there only to serve a purpose if they appear in the human population.

“So if we ever have a jump from a wild animal, this predictive vaccine bank will already have a vaccine there to combat that pandemic so that it’s just a matter of expanding that vaccine and getting it out there for humans.”

Research will ‘drive a whole new industry’

Arts said that for many of his team’s industry partners, the new lab can’t be built soon enough.

Through the new facility, he’ll expand on his current work at Western’s Impackt Facility, a viral imaging lab that was only three months old when the pandemic came to Canada early into 2020.

It’s an important advance in Canada’s ability to be ready for and fight a potential epidemic and pandemic.– Dr. Michael Silverman, director of infectious disease control at St. Joseph’s Healthcare

Soon after, the lab was quickly leveraged for more practical applications, when industry came knocking on the door looking for advice on how to create new materials and spaces that would mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Now, Arts and his team are collaborating with 35 large companies, such as 3M Canada, that are interested in improving the designs of vehicles, equipment, buildings, clothing and ventilation systems in order to give people better protection from disease.

“It’s going to drive a whole new industry,” he said. “Our partners are very big multinational companies.”

Lab could have made difference early in pandemic

The PRC will put Western University and London on the map in terms of developing new virus-resistant materials for industry. But it also has the potential to be a game changer in how humanity deals with disease.

Dr. Michael Silverman, director of the infectious disease program at St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, said having effective and safety tested vaccines for viruses could potentially give us a strong head start the next time a virus like COVID-19 jumps from animals to people.

“As everyone who knows from going through the pandemic, those months [without a vaccine] were particularly painful.

“By studying [viruses] early, and developing potential vaccine candidates and keeping them in a bank, should an epidemic occur before it becomes a pandemic, we would be able to rapidly develop these vaccines,” Silverman said.

“It would have helped not just Canada; it would have helped the world if we had vaccine banks that had coronavirus vaccines.

“It’s extremely exciting,” he said. “It’s an important advance in Canada’s ability to be ready for and fight a potential epidemic and pandemic.”

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