The University of Calgary is opening a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab to further its research into vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

"With a Level 3 facility we can conduct our own virus studies, rather than having to outsource this critical step," said Dr. Paul Kubes, PhD, professor at the Cumming School of Medicine. "Pathogens are clever, they evolve quickly.  Doing the research has led to important understanding and breakthroughs that lead to new medications, and treatments for people."

UCalgary previously ran a BSL-3 lab at the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases to study tuberculosis, but its work was halted several years ago when that research program ended. The ongoing pandemic prompted the school to reopen the lab.

"The ability of virologists, like myself, to be able to use the actual virus and not just parts of the virus allows us to ask really important questions about how the virus works," said Dr. Jennifer Corcoran, a virologist at the Cumming School of Medicine. "We want to try to identify new opportunities for developing therapeutics. Also, there are other researchers here at UCalgary, who are going to use this facility to try to build a vaccine against this virus."

High-powered microscopes in the lab enable scientists to watch in real-time how the virus enters the body, impacts the organs, and the immune system's response.

"We’re going to use technology, no one else in the world can use," said Kubes. "We're going to have a Level 3 facility with microscopes that allow us to visualise the lungs.  

"We're already one of the few labs in the world that can do that, and now we're going to put the microscopes inside the Level 3, so we'll be the only ones really in the world that can tell you what the virus is actually doing inside the lungs."

Level 3 labs require a special venting system to ensure no pathogens can escape. The U of C facility has a separate heating and ventilation system and the lab maintains negative air pressure compared to its surroundings.

"What this does is it pushes the air into that particular facility and pushes it out into our heating and ventilation system, through specialised filtering systems that will not allow viruses, parasites, or any microorganisms that we're working with, to escape," explained Shaunna Huston, director of business and operations for BSL-3 lab.  "Every point that gets breached by electrical wires or anything like that, we have to seal up and do specialised testing to make sure that there's no air leaching from inside and outside of the facility itself.

"In addition to that, we have specialised alarm systems, our heating and ventilation systems, if they shut down, then there's dampers that close so that air can't be circulated out in into the adjacent hallways or other rooms."

Funding for the reopening of the secure facility came from the Government of Canada’s Western Economic Diversification fund, as well as one of the university’s largest private donors.

"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," said 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."

While most researchers put the date for an approved COVID-19 vaccine at mid-2021 at the earliest, the University of Calgary says drugs discovered in the new BSL-3 lab could potentially be used to help people survive the infection before a vaccine is available.