New levels of safety

Jessica Jennings-Gaines works Tuesday to isolate a virus by using PCR, a technique that copies strands of DNA, at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory. SHANNON BRODERICK/Boomerang photographer

SHANNON BRODERICK

After years of sitting in legal limbo, construction of an important addition to the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory is underway.

A biosafety level 3 lab is being added to the facility on Snowy Range Road. While the vet lab is already important for Wyoming, an upgraded lab space could take the program to the next level, Director William Laegreid said.

“We have some nasty diseases present that require us to operate under BSL-3 conditions of safety,” he said.

The vet lab, operated under the University of Wyoming, is focused on diagnosing diseases present in Wyoming wildlife.

“We do roughly 100 tests a day,” Laegreid said. “That’s everything from testing horses to tumor diagnosis.”

Veterinarians from across the state send in samples of diseases they might not be able to identify.

“We get stuff submitted from all across the state,” Quality Control Specialist Mark Davidson said. “If a cow gets sick, they take a swab of it and send it in. We culture it, and it tells us a lot about the bacteria.”

Various antibiotics are introduced to the cultures, which will eventually show how to treat the animal, he explained.

The lab also performs rabies test for free, as they directly affect people. Regulatory Serology Technician Sylvia Freeman said it occupies quite a bit of her time.

“There’s about five of us trained for rabies,” she said. “We do a lot of animal testing like if a feral cat bit someone and they need to submit it for rabies testing.”

Livestock and small animal diseases comprise only part of the lab’s work — wildlife diseases are just as relevant, Laegreid said. For some diseases, a lab has to close down entirely to work with the animal when a BSL-3 lab would negate the necessity. The lab requires more stringent safety protocol and isolation.

“We get them all the time,” he said. “We have to change our procedures in the lab to accommodate these conditions. It’s very disruptive to the lab to do that, which is one of the reasons we need a new one.

“Say, if we have a mountain lion we thought had plague, or a house cat we thought had plague — both of which happen several times a year — we would close down our necropsy (lab) for everything but that animal,” Laegreid continued. “People would suit up and do their sampling, and then the entire place is decontaminated.”

The idea of creating a BSL-3 lab was started in 2007, Laegreid said. The original project was finished in 2013.

“It wasn’t up to standards,” he said. “We were ready to move in and were trying out systems, but we just found a number of deficiencies. It was obvious to everyone it wasn’t going to happen.”

The state entered legal discussions with the original contractor, delaying renovations until last week.

“Our most optimistic date is a little over a year from now for completion of construction,” Laegreid said.

Laegreid said he’s confident the project will not fare the same fate as the first attempt.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good group of people working on this,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would give final approval and declare it a BSL-3 lab. The process can take anywhere from a few months to a few years.

One of the top uses of the lab is for diagnosing and researching brucellosis, a bacteria causing abortions in cattle and large wildlife.

“We have eradicated it from most of the country,” Laegreid said. “The last focus of infections is in the greater Yellowstone area. It got into elk and bison and is now maintained in wild populations. Occasionally, cattle come into contact, mostly with elk, and we get positive cattle herds. We have two under quarantine right now.”

The BSL-3 would allow them to further study and possibly find eliminate brucellosis for good.

“I’m optimistic that we will improve our ability to detect infected animals and hopefully progress toward a vaccination,” Laegreid said.

UW scoreboard rises

The University of Wyoming War Memorial Stadium is getting a facelift, including the construction of a new scoreboard being the most significant.

“It’s really a great addition,” Associate Athletics Director Bill Sparks said. “The sound system needed improvement for some time.”

The new structure, slated for completion Aug. 1, will bring a high-definition LED and a new speaker system to War Memorial Stadium. The screen is larger than the previous scoreboard because the northern board will be removed, making room for the Rochelle Athletic Center addition set to begin construction in late 2016.

The UW Board of Trustees approved $4.5 million for the project. Sparks expects the final price to be under budget.

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