09/16/2011 12:26 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

Prime minister Harper opens state-of-the-art vaccine centre in Saskatoon

SASKATOON - Cows will be under the microscope at a new state-of-the-art vaccine centre billed as the largest of its kind in North America.

The $140-million International Vaccine Centre (InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan held its grand opening Friday. The complex, covering an area larger than two Canadian football fields, will research infectious diseases and vaccines to try to protect both human and animal health.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Saskatoon-based InterVac is special because it's one of only a handful of labs of its kind in North America, one that is big enough to study larger animals.

"To put the technology into layman's terms, InterVac can put the cattle under the proverbial microscope in the most secure, airtight environment," said Harper.

Harper said the ability to test vaccines on livestock is critical to protecting the food supply.

"I want to emphasis this point, the stakes are enormous.

"One small outbreak of disease can destroy whole herds, it can ruin the lives of scores of ranchers and it can cost the taxpayers massive amounts of money. As Canadians we saw 18 cattle — 18 cattle affected with BSE lead to industry losses of about $6.5 billion. That's why we're so determined to catch disease before disease catches us."

Centre director Dr. Andy Potter said the idea of the InterVac was conceived more than a decade ago, at a time when "containment level three diseases in this country were rare."

There was no SARS, for example.

Potter said no one knows what future diseases might be, but researchers have a pretty good idea. He said there's about an 80 per cent chance they're going to arise out of the animal population.

That's what makes the centre unique, he said.

"What this centre's going to do is develop strategies and technologies to protect Canadians against infectious diseases like SARS, pandemic influenza, West Nile virus and cattle producers, swine producers, etcetera as well against diseases of animals," said Potter.

"It's different because we focus on vaccines. Other centres focus on different things. For example, the national micro lab in Winnipeg is a phenomenal facility, but they don't have a vaccine focus. We do."

The work could reach beyond Canada's borders.

One researcher is looking at ways to make vaccines more effective so they can work in a single dose. Dr. Volker Gerdts is also developing ways that will allow vaccines to be inhaled instead of injected. He's working on whooping cough.

"What we're doing right now is, we're immunizing our children five times, at least in Canada, with a needle," said Gerdts.

"Now what we're hoping is to have a vaccine that can be given shortly after birth. It will be through an inhalation device so there is no needle so it's much better for the infant and it works after a single (dose). So you don't need to come back and get another immunization."

Gerdts said the findings will be particularly important for developing countries where young children still suffer from these infectious diseases and it can be hard to get them immunized multiple times.

It could take between five and 10 years before such a vaccine hits the market for the public.

The lab itself is expected to be certified by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency this fall and start full operations next spring. Once it's certified, security will be at a high level and there will be limited access.