The lab relies on high-tech machinery and methods to detect and analyze pathogens. These non-descript machines in the Next Generation Sequencing Lab in the basement can identify the pathogen at play, and the mode of transmission. It didn’t exist a decade ago when SARS appeared, but when a new virus shows up now, scientists can understand a lot more about it within hours. "When outbreaks happen, you really want to work as fast as you can," says Jamieson.
Ten years ago there were only two microbiologists and medical clinicians on staff at the lab. Today there are seven, as well as 250 employees. The Central Lab will move to the MaRS Discovery Centre in downtown Toronto late next year, a stone’s throw away from hospital row and the University of Toronto campus, where many of the lab’s researchers and scientists teach and study.
The new lab will be housed in the top four floors of the MaRS building, in order to equip it with the special, negative-pressure air filtration system needed to contain lethal or highly virulent pathogens.
Today, staff are prepared for the newest virus to make news. Novel coronavirus first appeared in Saudi Arabia last September. In has infected 14 people so far, many from one family, says Dr. Jonathan Gubbay, a medical microbiologist at Central Lab. The virus has made it to Qatar, Jordan, and the U.K., but largely because of air travel by that one family. It has a 50 per cent mortality rate.
Communication has been crucial in assessing and tracking the coronavirus, Gubbay adds. Worldwide collaboration led scientists to quickly discover they were dealing with a bat coronavirus, transmissible via droplet spread, but it may not be as infectious as SARS.
Toronto’s Central Lab has the capacity to conduct large-scale specimen testing, should the novel coronavirus ever reach Ontario.