By establishing the infrastructure to study COVID-19 in a secure environment, the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences is creating new possibilities for collaboration and discovery.
By Ashley Rabinovitch

Dr. Marcel Behr

When the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Quebec in February 2020, McGill and the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) began to prepare for the inevitable spike in demand for safe, secure research facilities. “At that point, we knew that we needed to be ready for what was coming,” remembers Dr. Marcel Behr, Professor in the Department of Medicine at McGill University and the interim Director of the McGill Infectious Diseases Division at the Research Institute of the MUHC (RI-MUHC). In the following months, Dr. Behr spearheaded the effort to repurpose existing facilities to create a space for McGill investigators with a plan to advance COVID-19 research.

The Containment Level 3 (CL3) platform housed within the RI-MUHC contains three independent pods that meet the second-highest level of biosafety standards defined by Canadian Biosafety Standards and Guidelines. According to Dr. Behr, who is also the founding Director of the McGill International TB Centre and co-Director of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4), the CL3 facility was created to support research in tuberculosis, influenza, and HIV.

Dr. Silvia Vidal

Down the road from the RI-MUHC, the Bellini Life Sciences Complex houses McGill’s second CL3 facility for COVID-19 research. Dr. Silvia Vidal, a Professor in the Departments of Human Genetics and Microbiology and Immunology, who serves as the Director of the McGill University Centre on Complex Traits, oversees the facility as she works closely with Dr. Behr to expand opportunities for research. “We had already created a CL3 facility to study tuberculosis, so much of our initial effort has gone toward designing the repurposed facility in a way that serves the needs of our researchers,” says Dr. Vidal. “A CL3 is an engineering platform that also involves stakeholders from the McGill Animal Facilities and Environmental and Health offices, all of whom need to verify that we are working in a safe environment.”

In May 2020, the CL3 facility at the RI-MUHC received the first batch of viral samples from laboratories in Quebec, Winnipeg, and Toronto. “We chose to request several different strains to account for mutations and in case a strain failed to grow well,” explains Dr. Behr. Currently, the CL3 he directs contains six different strains—three imported from outside laboratories and three derived from patient samples at the MUHC. “We sent RNA to the McGill Genome Centre to verify it was pure SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and we were on our way,” he says.

In both CL3 locations, McGill investigators, affiliated collaborators, and external companies are undertaking a range of COVID-related projects. “They generally fall into three categories,” says Dr. Behr. “Some research groups are working to modify an immune response to the infection, which informs vaccine development, while others are testing compounds as part of an antiviral treatment strategy. A third group is using RNA to determine the effectiveness of diagnostic tools.”

In the CL3 at the Bellini Life Sciences Complex, investigators are primarily invested in discovering antiviral therapies. “The bread and butter of their research has been to identify genes that prevent the spread of infection,” shares Dr. Vidal. When she’s not in the lab, Dr. Vidal is communicating via Zoom with Dr. Behr at the MUHC to respond to requests from investigators and private companies to use the CL3 facilities. “Ultimately, our role is not to define the scope of the research itself but to ensure that every investigator at McGill has the necessary equipment to apply and utilize COVID-related grant funding,” she affirms.

Funded by a grant from MI4, McGill’s CL3 facilities will continue to provide a secure location for research as long as COVID-19 remains a relevant pathogen. “The greatest challenge we encounter at the moment is managing all the requests to use our facilities,” says Dr. Behr, “but it’s a good problem to have. We’ve gone from an idea at the beginning of the year to a state-of-the-art platform for groundbreaking research.”

September 23, 2020