From mobile labs to Ebola vaccines: How the National Microbiology Laboratory did it all

1980 to present
Winnipeg, Manitoba
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By Jassi Bedi

 

In 2001 suspicious mail showed up in New Brunswick. People feared that it may have been laced with anthrax like the letters being sent to congressional offices in the USA at the time.

No one wanted to move the mail all the way to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, so scientists had to rush out with all their equipment on hand. NML took inspiration from this and considered a solution that had equipment on-the-go. Analyzing a sample takes long enough as it is, and having to move the sample to a lab just makes things needlessly difficult. So, they decided to make the world’s first mobile lab.

The NML is a world leader in microbiology and crucial to the progress of medicine. They study some of the most lethal infectious organisms and are one of few labs worldwide that has four laboratories. Their venture into mobile research allows for them to set up shop wherever they’re called. This lets them do tests immediately and shorten wait times significantly. Remote locations really benefit from this because of their distance from laboratories.

Mobile labs as a concept is spreading worldwide. They were a great help in 2002 when diagnosing cases of Ebola in Western Africa. The symptoms of Ebola are very similar to malaria, so being able to do tests on site allowed cases of Ebola to be diagnosed more easily. That way people that tested positive for the disease could be quarantined to prevent further propagation.

An Ebola vaccine is also in development at the NML. It works by transplanting a strand of Ebola into a virus that typically infects cows. Then the virus is then put into a person so their immune system responds accordingly and mounts the proper defences to fight off the disease. The vaccine is still in its infancy and so far only works on monkeys.

However, the NML were able to create a mixture of drugs called Zmapp. It’s a combination of three antibodies, two of which were made domestically and one made at the US Army Institute for Infectious Disease Research. While still in testing phases it has shown some moderate success. The most famous of these cases was with an American doctor and nurse who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone. Zmapp successfully cured them of the disease.

Treating such an infectious disease isn’t easy. The National Microbiology Laboratory’s methods of eradicating Ebola are still developing, but their dedication to fighting the disease can’t be argued against. Mobile Labs have also lessened the burden of diagnosing Ebola, other diseases and issues of security by making equipment more accessible in order to get accurate results faster.