January 19, 2007
Architectural images of the InterVac facility are courtesy of Smith Carter/AODBT.
By Colleen MacPherson
Now that the final piece of the funding puzzle is in place, design work on Canada’s newest facility dedicated to protecting humans and animals from emerging infectious diseases will enter its final stages with construction expected to begin as early as May.
On Jan. 4, the federal health minister, Tony Clement, visited the University of Saskatchewan to announce his government’s additional contribution of up to $25 million for the International Vaccine Centre (InterVac), a Level 3 biosafety facility. Owned and operated by the U of S, InterVac will build on the work already being done by the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) but with a focus on vaccines targeting diseases like SARS, West Nile virus, BSE, hepatitis C and tuberculosis.
Clement told a gathering of University officials, researchers and dignitaries that scientists predict a new infectious disease will be discovered every 14-16 months, “so we have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” The federal government, he said, is committed to enhancing research and development capacity to address the issue of emerging diseases, and views vaccines as “one of the most powerful public health tools” available.
Clement’s announcement is in addition to $24 million already committed by the federal government to the $110.3 million project. Other funding partners include the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the province and the City of Saskatoon, which has pledged $250,000 to InterVac over five years. The health minister said the announcement of “up to” $25 million recognizes that costs over and above that point will be the responsibility of the University as per the agreement between the two.
The minister deferred to Dr. David Butler-Jones on the question of InterVac operating costs. The chief public health officer said those funds will come from a range of sources, including research grants and user fees. It will be a matter of bringing “the right pots and pockets together,” he said, adding he is not worried about operating funds because “everyone recognizes the importance of this project.”
Following the announcement, VIDO director Lorne Babiuk said the two organizations – VIDO and InterVac – will operate as a single entity with one governance structure overseeing both operations. “It doesn’t make sense to have two organizations and two directors,” said Babiuk. “We’re all part of the University. Why continue to add bureaucracy?”
At the time of Clement’s visit to campus, about 50 per cent of the design documents for InterVac had already been completed, with about 95 per cent expected to be done by March, according to Cam Ewart, manager of project development with Facilities Management Division (FMD). But because of the nature of the facility, extra steps are required before a single shovelful of dirt is moved.
“All things pathogen-related are governed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency,” explained Ewart, who has been working with Babiuk on the InterVac project since December 2001. That means all drawings, specs and standard operating procedures for the building must be submitted to those agencies for review before approval to construct is issued. This approval process should go smoothly, he said, because “we’ve involved them all the way along. If all things go well, we should see the start of construction by the end of April or early May.”
Ewart said that when the architectural team – containment facility specialists Smith Carter from Winnipeg and AODBT, a local firm – are through, there will be in excess of 700 pages of drawings for the building, and some six volumes of specs. By comparison, the Physical Activity Complex (PAC), which is a similarly sized building, required about 200 drawings.
To handle the tendering and building process, the University has retained PCL as construction managers on the project, he said. And because of the very specialized nature of the building, the University will hold information sessions for potential contractors to alleviate concerns about pathogen containment requirements.
“Once you get past the actual containment areas, it’s a very traditional building,” said Ewart. “It requires more air handling but that’s all still just duct work. It’s very unusual to hold information sessions, but we want to break down some of the barriers for contractors, and the indication from the industry is that the more they get into the design process, the less concerned they are.”
For any contractor, InterVac construction will require a big commitment, Ewart said. “It’s going to be about a 32-month process to build this place so they’re going to be here for a while.” That said, word of the project has spread and interest is high in the industry. A mechanical firm from Texas with experience building a Level 4 facility at the University of Texas at Galvaston has already contacted the University independently to enquire about the job. “This project is on an international scale,” said Ewart.
He admitted volatility in construction costs presents an added challenge “but part of the process is looking at the budgets at every stage of development.” To help, the University has engaged a firm of pricing specialists who will evaluate costing as the project proceeds.
Even with all the extra hurdles and challenges “and with the ups and downs we’ve gone through over the last number of years,” Ewart still views InterVac as an amazing undertaking.
“I remember first discussing this concept with Dr. Babiuk in the fall of 2001, and now this dream is going to happen. It’s going to be tremendous for this University.”
Ranking of organisms explained
Organisms come in many forms, ranging from harmless to lethal, making it critically important that the right kind of facility be used to handle them.
The University’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) is a Level 2 biosafety facility while the new InterVac building will be Level 3. Lorne Babiuk, VIDO director, explained the difference at a Jan. 4 press conference on campus.
In the four different categories of organisms, Level 1 is the most benign. Unable to cause disease in individuals, Babiuk said Level 1 organisms are the ones used every day in processes that produce beer, bread, wine and cheese.
At Level 2, the organisms can cause disease but are unlikely to be deadly. VIDO is rated to this level, which includes the bugs that result in the common cold. The new Level 3 InterVac facility will take on even more challenging diseases like SARS, BSE and hepatitis C, he said. These organisms cannot be handled without special containment measures.
At Level 4, the organisms are “really nasty.” They include smallpox and Ebola virus. The National Microbiology Laboratory housed in the Canadian Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg is Canada’s only Level 4 biosafety facility.
|Architectural images of the InterVac facility are courtesy of Smith Carter/AODBT.|