Cover

ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE SEARCH FOR THE CAUSE OF SARS

BRIAN BERGMAN April 14 2003
Cover

ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE SEARCH FOR THE CAUSE OF SARS

BRIAN BERGMAN April 14 2003

ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE SEARCH FOR THE CAUSE OF SARS

Cover

Since opening in June 2000, Health Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory has handled its share of life-threatening infectious organisms. One of an elite group of high-containment centres around the world, the Winnipeg facility helped respond to the post-Sept. 11 anthrax scare and it continues to play a prominent role in tracking the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. But its current challenge pits its expertise against the mysterious SARS. Since mid-March, about 50 researchers have done thousands of tests on over 1,200 SARS virus samples drawn from more than 400 individuals. Long shifts can extend through the night, with staff crashing for a few hours on cots while waiting for test results. It’s exhausting, acknowledges scientific director general Frank Plummer, but very exciting. “It’s what we’re here for,” he says. “This kind of thing is why this lab was built in the first place.”

The Winnipeg centre, which Prime Minister Jean Chrétien toured last week, is part of a network of 11 laboratories tapped by the World Health Organization to mount the clinical assault on SARS. At 6:30 a.m. Winnipeg time, the Canadians join a daily conference call with fellow scientists from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. They exchange results, methods, theories. “I don’t think this has ever happened before,” says Plummer. “Usually, labs end up competing and don’t

share much information. Although everyone still wants to be the first one to figure this out, it’s a healthier competition this time around.”

In the beginning, the far-flung scientists had to cast a wide net, painstakingly ruling out dozens of known agents that might cause SARSlike symptoms. They have since zeroed in on two prime suspects-a coronavirus, which comes

from a family of viruses that normally cause common colds, and the metapneumovirus, usually associated with mild respiratory infections. One theory under scrutiny, says Plummer, is that the two viruses somehow act together in a new way-possibly with the aid of a third, yet unknown agent.

For all the public fear of SARS, researchers on the front lines are working with relatively modest protective gear. The most sophisticated and secure unit at the Winnipeg facility is the biosafety level 4 lab, where researchers wear what look like space suits, connected to filtered airlines. It’s designed to deal with highly contagious agents, including the deadly Ebola virus, that can be readily transmitted from person to person or animal to human. Right now, the level 4 labs are seeing only limited use, mainly for growing virus cultures and inoculating animals with SARS.

Most of the samples taken from SARS patients, including nasal and throat swabs, are considered less infectious; that testing is being done in more open labs. In these units, staff simply don lab coats, high-efficiency breathing masks, gloves and eye shields. “The virus actually seems to be quite fragile,” says Plummer. “Although lots of health-care professionals have been infected in various parts of the world, none have been lab personnel.” Some comfort, perhaps, for Winnipeg’s weary SARS warriors. BRIAN BERGMAN

BRIAN BERGMAN