Winnipeg’s microbiology lab playing pivotal role in the fight against COVID-19

When new illnesses, diseases and viruses reach Canada, the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg is the front line for research and testing.

It’s where the Ebola vaccine was created, it was the forefront of the fight against SARS and now it is playing a pivotal role in the search for a vaccine and finding answers about the coronavirus.

“Winnipeg is heralded for what they do,” University of Manitoba Emerging Viruses Researcher Dr. Jason Kindrachuk said. “Winnipeg has become a focal point for infectious disease research globally.”

It’s the only Level 4 lab in Canada and is the battleground when it comes to the fight against infectious diseases and deadly viruses.

“They are looking to understand how these viruses emerge, what causes them to spill over, how we can contain them and in identifying new therapeutics and new vaccines,” he said.

It’s where all of the Canadian COVID-19 tests are sent for final confirmation and right now the lab’s priority is understanding and finding out as much as possible about the virus.

“We’re trying to better understand how this virus transmits. We can try and identify animals that are susceptible to this disease, to see how it transmits to another (animal).”

One of the key unknowns with COVID-19 right now is exactly where in nature it came from. Scientists believe it originated in bats but haven’t determined if there is an intermediate animal or host between humans and bats.

“We think that bats likely carry this virus,” Dr. Kindrachuk said. “Now if you think or a population of bats, there’s millions of individual bats within a species. You’re trying to find that tiny population of that large number of bats that’s carrying the virus.”

“It’s like trying to find the smallest needle in the largest haystack. That’s where it gets complicated.”

Kindrachukl is doing collaborative COVID-19 research with the lab. He said it has become ground zero in finding a possible vaccine.

“A lot of it is to try to develop animal models of infection so we can test new therapeutics and new vaccines to try to figure out a mechanism to defeat this virus as quick as possible,” he said.

But it’s not just about finding a vaccine.

“Ultimately what we need to be concerned about is, this virus is hiding somewhere in nature,” he said. “How do we figure out where it is so we can try to stop it from spilling over again in the future.”

Kinderchuk also said he doesn’t believe Manitoba is seeing any widespread community transmission because there hasn’t been a drastic increase in severe respiratory disease reporting.

“What that suggests is that we’re not seeing an increase above and beyond what’s normal for severe or fatal respiratory diseases and that would suggest we’re not seeing broad community transmission.”

He also said the new normal of social distancing and being more restrictive with your movements could last more than three months. After flattening the curve, Kindrachuk said it’s about making sure it doesn’t cause a second outbreak or wave and hit the health care system again.

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