In late November, a strange envelope turned up at the Canadian embassy in Lebanon. Its suspicious contents — wood shavings, according to local reports — sparked alarm: did it contain dangerous pathogens? Could this be a bioterrorist attack? The building was closed until the package could be investigated.
In snowy Winnipeg, 9,600 kilometres away, Dr. Cindi Corbett received the call: she was going to Beirut. In the hours before sunrise on Nov. 30, Corbett and her team drove to a nondescript warehouse and grabbed four black bags — inside were the components of a mobile laboratory, capable of handling some of the world’s deadliest pathogens.
The team was soon en route to Lebanon. Within hours of arriving at the embassy, they had set up their lab, investigated the package and deemed it to be harmless.
The episode drew little attention, both at home and in Lebanon, and nowhere on Google will you find any mention of Corbett in Beirut. For the mother of two, it was just another day on the job as one of Canada’s top bioterrorism scientists. For the National Microbiology Laboratory where Corbett works, the Beirut incident was just another example of how Public Health Agency of Canada scientists work behind the scenes to protect people from microscopic dangers.
Public-health practitioners sometimes mutter that people only notice them when things go wrong. Canadians may remember reading about the National Microbiology Laboratory during SARS, the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic or the recent XL Foods E. coli outbreak.
But even in the long, quiet stretches between crises, the lab is working every day to keep pathogens at bay. The Next Big One is always simmering; whether it boils over depends on a mixture of chance and preparedness.
Ten years after SARS, considered by some to be the first pandemic of the 21st century, the Toronto Star travelled to Winnipeg to meet the people whose job it is to keep pathogens from gaining the upper hand.