Published: March 2nd, 2007
Revised: August 4th, 2009
Security and safety precautions enacted worldwide since the attack on the World Trade Center have highlighted the value of having strong Canadian-based Secure Biological Resource Centres (SBRCs) so that anti-bioterror researchers and other scientists working in the national interest retain access to materials needed for their studies. SBRCs house valuable bacterial, viral, and other microbial strains and specimens. They also perform complex identifications, work with DNA, antigens and other microbial components, and do consultation, education and research on microbial matters. Safe backup deposit is provided as a service for economically important strains utilized by industry. Though in the past Canadian science and medicine have relied on US-based SBRC’s for many types of materials and tests, this has become increasingly, often prohibitively difficult due to factors such as the U.S. Select Agent program, stringent import regulations, and very high costs for the requested biomaterials, special packaging and special shipping. Moreover, absence of expert supervision in some major U.S.-based SBRCs means the effort and cost yields a significant proportion of incorrectly identified materials. Existing Canadian SBRCs are vigorous and generally supervised by top-level experts, but are mostly small, dispersed, and poorly funded – or at best itinerantly and unreliably funded by trend-driven academic granting councils. Many if not most face extinction over the next 10 years due to staff retirements and changing trends in university and governmental administration. Those not fitting this pattern are mostly inadequately staffed and are not reliably able to send materials to researchers requesting them. Governments throughout Europe (including the UK) and in Japan have funded or co-funded state-of-the-art SBRC networks and/or centralized SBRCs, many of which have attained the high quality standards needed for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s planned Global Biological Resource Centre Network. However, repeated attempts in the last two decades to effect similar modernization or at least a degree of stabilization in Canada’s SBRCs have been unsuccessful, and the number of SBRCs has strongly declined. The current prospectus probably represents Canada’s last chance to forge a viable, international-standard SBRC network before its constituent elements are permanently lost or rendered ineffectual. This feasibility study outlines cost-effective ways to build a strong Canadian SBRC network taking advantage of the Canada-wide distribution of still-vital existing facilities. The network is proposed as a joint venture involving a new federal government initiative, the National Centres for Secure Biological Resources (NCSBR) and existing university and governmental host facilities. A governance structure is proposed based mainly on European models but modified to fit the Canadian situation. It features establishment of a small NCSBR network coordinating office and the engagement of NCSBR-funded quality control/quality assurance staff at seven geographically dispersed “core SBRCs.” The chief scientist of each core SBRC will be funded by the host institution, as per current practice, and the host institution will also provide basic facilities and amenities. Each core SBRC will safeguard a particular socioeconomically vital group of organisms, e.g. one will specialize in medically important viruses, one in medical bacteria, one in agriculturally important viruses, and so on. Most core SBRCs will also link to smaller and more specialized “affiliate SBRCs,” which will not draw human resources directly from the NCSBR budget but, as with the core SBRCs, will be eligible to effect quality improvements and other upgrading tasks based on successful application to an NCSBR-managed Strategic Fund. Though this network can be constituted within the federal system as one of various types of secretariat structures or as a Schedule II crown agency, the recommended primary option for consideration is an independent secretariat, analogous to the CBRN Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI), reporting to Parliament through a designated Minister. The ability of SBRCs to carry on the highly cost-effective practice of costrecovery, charging requestors for materials shipped out, is a significant consideration in determining the optimal governance structure. As with much science and technology, several ministry areas are equally relevant to this project: Health, Agriculture, Industry, Environment, Natural Resources and Defence. The reporting Minister should ideally represent the Ministry most strongly disposed to champion the safeguarding and improvement of Canada’s ability to conduct effective, innovative research involving disease-causing, industrially valuable, and ecologically vital microorganisms.