Attention mad scientists: It may soon be illegal to store Ebola in your basement.
The federal government has introduced legislation to limit access to disease-causing pathogens and toxins and to dictate how they should be handled.
The aim of the bill, which is heading to a Commons committee, is to prevent terrorists from intentionally unleashing biohazards and to protect Canadians from mistakes by lab workers.
Laboratories - local community labs that diagnose disease, as well as university and government research labs - are required to follow bio-safety guidelines before they can import pathogens, explained Theresa Tam, director-general of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Those import regulations apply to about 3,500 facilities across Canada.
But, said Dr. Tam, "there is a gap in that laboratories that do not import pathogens currently fall outside the existing regulations."
Most technicians follow a regime that has become accepted practice when dealing with human pathogens. The really bad bugs such as anthrax, for instance, are stored only at the Health Canada Level 4 laboratory in Winnipeg.
"We certainly believe that laboratories, many of them, voluntarily comply with existing laboratory bio-safety guidelines and that, in general, laboratories are safe in Canada," said Dr. Tam.
But there is a clear need, she said, for people working with the highest-risk pathogens to obtain a security clearance. The new legislation, which was originally introduced last year but died when the fall election was called, would do that.
Under the new law, no one who is not licensed by the government would be permitted to possess, produce, store, transfer or dispose of a human pathogen or toxin.
In addition, the disease-causing materials would be divided into categories, according to the level of risk they present, and technicians would be required to handle them accordingly.
The legislation makes it clear that the regulations won't apply to diseases that occur naturally in human beings. No one will be carted off to jail for coming down with Ebola.
But the consequences for those who knowingly violate the law could be fines of $1-million and jail terms of five years.
Peter Singer, a professor of medicine at the University Health Network and the University of Toronto, has been studying whether Canada is prepared for bioterrorism. The answer, he said, is "I'm not sure."
The introduction of a law to control the security of pathogens and toxins is an important piece of the puzzle, said Dr. Singer. "To really get the bio-security thing right you need a web of protection."
Any law, he said, must balance that security with the need to allow scientists to do their work.
It also must take into account that bio-materials are more easily obtained than the highly enriched uranium or plutonium that would be required for a nuclear attack.
So "this is at least as much about fostering a culture of bio-security among scientists as it is about controlling pathogens," said Dr. Singer. "And that is why scientists need to be deeply engaged in developing the solution."
The following is a quick list of some of the most feared bioterrorism threats. All can be deadly. A new law introduced by the federal government aims to keep them under tight control.
Transmitted through the inhalation of spores, rarely person-to-person
Causes respiratory failure
Can be treated with Cipro
A food-borne toxin
Causes gastrointestinal symptoms, blurred vision, possible muscle paralysis or airway obstruction
Can be treated with an antitoxin
Transmitted person-to-person or animal-to-person
A number of medications can be used as treatment
Transmitted through airborne droplets, can be communicated person-to person
Causes flu-like symptoms, fever, rash, scabs
There is no known treatment.