Nov. 3, 2020

UCalgary facility to further research into COVID-19 vaccine and treatments

Community, industry and government come together to support reopening of biosafety Level 3 lab

University of Calgary scientists and clinicians will soon have access to a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab to further their research into vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. The highly specialized facility will allow researchers to study the complete life cycle of the virus, starting at the point of infection, and ultimately translate research innovation into commercialization opportunities.

“With a level 3 facility we can conduct our own virus studies, rather than having to outsource this critical step,” says Dr. Paul Kubes, PhD, professor at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and lead for the Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD) research strategy at UCalgary. “It’s far more efficient and effective to do the entire process here at the University of Calgary.”

  • Photo above: The biosafety lab will enable researchers to test vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

UCalgary is one of a few places in Canada with a BSL-3 lab; however, work in the lab at the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases was suspended a number of years ago, when a research program ended. The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated the need for UCalgary to reopen the lab.

Jennifer Corcoran, Paul Kubes and Shaunna Huston

Jennifer Corcoran, Paul Kubes and Shaunna Huston helped make the new lab a reality.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The Government of Canada, through Western Economic Diversification Canada, is providing funding for this initiative. The BSL-3 lab is infrastructure that researchers, innovators and small- and medium-sized firms in Alberta’s health innovation sector will be able to access, thereby bolstering Alberta’s innovation ecosystem and enabling the commercialization of new health products for market.

"The health and safety of Canadians is our number one priority, and establishing a facility of this calibre is one way our government is enabling Canada’s innovators and health science firms to win the fight against COVID-19," said Mélanie Joly, minister of economic development and official languages, and minister responsible for western economic diversification Canada.

The pandemic's far-reaching impact has highlighted the important role of medical research in protecting our communities, and I’m proud that this facility will provide the critical infrastructure here in Calgary to bring health innovation to market.

Industry, business incubators, various departments within the university community, and one of the university’s major research supporters also stepped forward to expedite the return of this lab.

“I saw an opportunity to make a difference in the fight against COVID-19 and didn’t hesitate to lend my support through the Snyder Institute,” says Joan Snyder, philanthropist and founder of the Snyder Institute. “The level 3 lab continues the preeminent work of the Snyder Institute and is vital to elevating research in Calgary for this and all other deadly and infectious diseases as they crop up.”

The lab is equipped with high-powered, specialized microscopes. Scientists can watch in real time how the virus enters the body and impacts the lungs and other organs along with how our immune system responds.

“Pathogens are clever, they evolve quickly,” adds Kubes. “Doing the research has led to important understanding and breakthroughs that lead to new medications, and treatments for people.”

Level 3 labs require a special venting system to ensure pathogens can never escape. The facility is equipped with a separate heating and ventilation system. As well, it has been built so that air pressures within the facility are negative to the external environment to ensure that unfiltered air does not move from the containment facility to the external environment.

“COVID-19 certainly provided the urgency to re-open this facility, but ultimately it will be used to investigate many different diseases — such as tuberculosis, which continues to be a burden across North America and worldwide,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “Thanks to the support of our community and our government, the Biosafety Level 3 lab better positions UCalgary to make significant progress toward understanding these diseases and improving health for Canadians.”

While a vaccine for COVID-19 is at least a year away if not longer, approved drugs discovered in the lab could be used to help people survive the infection today. 

Community support fuels important research and education priorities within the Cumming School of Medicine, including our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the core infrastructure that supports this work. Giving to the CSM Impact Fund can help minimize the consequences of the pandemic in our community and beyond.

In addition to support from the Government of Canada, and Joan Snyder, we would like to acknowledge Mitogen Diagnostics Corporation, Canadian Tire, Innovate Calgary, various departments and faculties at the university including the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases and the team at Facilities.

Paul Kubes, PhD, is the lead for the Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD) research strategy at the University of Calgary. He is a professor in Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the CSM.

Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases

The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.