By Twyla Roscovich
How did lawyer Greg McDade foresee this? Has he just been around the game long enough to know how these things work?
When McDade, a well-known environmental lawyer, predicted that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would decertify a Canadian lab in December 2011 during the Cohen Commission’s hearings on the Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus, no one took much notice. But in hindsight his prediction was dead on.
“Dr. [Fred] Kibenge had the temerity to announce positive test results and the result is his lab is being analyzed by you," McDade said at the time. "I suggest to you that the federal government is going to try and take away his OIE [World Organisation for Animal Health] certification as a punishment for this…I predict within the next 12 months Canada will go after his credibility; isn't that right?”
Several months later, the CFIA would indeed order an audit of Kibenge's lab on Prince Edward Island. Then in November 2012, the agency recommended that the OIE strip Kibenge's facility's status as an international reference lab for the ISA virus. On June 13, 2013, the OIE approved the request of the CFIA.
"What they are doing here is essentially punishing me for having testified at the Cohen Commission and trying to suppress the findings that we’ve been finding," said Kibenge in an interview with the Globe & Mail last year. "It’s an attack on my credibility. I just feel compelled to continue with my research work because there is nothing here that I can see that I’ve done wrong.”
The sequence of events is suspicious. Kibenge has worked for years without controversy testing for viruses for the aquaculture industry. No one questioned him or his lab until he reported finding positive test results for the ISA virus in B.C. salmon. It came in samples submitted by Dr. Rick Routledge, an SFU professor working on sockeye salmon in Rivers Inlet, and independent biologist Alexandra Morton.
Suddenly he came under investigation, and eventually was stripped of his reference-lab status.
Kibenge’s finding was so controversial because it meant that the salmon-farming industry was possibly responsible for importing a reportable virus from Europe into B.C. via Atlantic salmon egg imports. ISA is the most lethal salmon virus known worldwide, and it is associated with industrial salmon farming. If the ISA virus were to be confirmed, it would mean that B.C. could be listed as positive for the ISA virus, which could mean restrictions on the trade of B.C. farmed salmon. This would be very inconvenient for the industry and for trade relations with the U.S.
Kibenge operates the only independent lab in Canada, which was internationally certified and that tests for this virus. Is the next step to shut him down? The CFIA would then be in full control of whether or not the virus is officially reported in B.C.
Other labs have found ISA in BC salmon
Kibenge is not alone in finding positive test results for ISA virus in B.C. salmon. Researchers at other labs have reported the virus, including:
• Dr. Kristi Miller reported finding ISA virus in farmed salmon on the west coast of Vancouver Island (Cohen exhibit 2053) and in sockeye. (Cohen exhibit 2060)
• Dr. Kyle Garver (Cohen exhibits 2043 and 2056).
• Dr. Sonja Saksida of the B.C. Centre for Aquatic Health Services reported ISA (in polymerase chemical reaction–positive tests) to the CFIA in farmed Chinook salmon from Creative Salmon. (Cohen Exhibit 2055)
• A 2004 draft paper coauthored by Molly and Fred Kibenge, Simon Jones, and Garth Traxler (DFO) reported 115 ISA virus positive results. These demonstrated up to 99.7% identity to an ISA virus isolate from Norway. Positive samples in the draft included farmed Atlantic salmon, wild salmon from Alaskan waters and throughout B.C., and Cultus Lake sockeye. (Cohen Exhibit 2045)
What exactly did Kibenge do wrong? Neither OIE nor CFIA will say exactly why they removed Kibenge’s OIE status, but they do make reference to nonrepeatable results, which means the lab the CFIA is using isn’t getting the same results as Kibenge.
Why the government lab can’t find it
Nearly every lab that doesn’t have direct ties with industry and the government seems to be able to find at least segments of the virus, while every lab that has a vested interest in not finding the virus can’t seem to detect it. It’s easy not to find this virus if you don’t want to. Here is why: if a virus is imported to a new country, it doesn’t stay the same for long. Influenza viruses like ISA virus are known to for their rapid mutations, which is what makes them so dangerous.
If you use a PCR test that only reports an exact match as a “positive”, you could easily miss the virus, since even a slight change will make it “invisible” to a probe that is looking for an exact sequence. Kibenge's lab was using a technique that was reading the sequences of the virus, rather than just using a probe that only reports an exact match of a very specific sequence. So he was able to pick up on viral sequences that contained slight variations of the virus, as well as fragments.
So I believe that what we have in B.C. is a somewhat divergent strain of ISA that is not universally picked up with the assays that are presently in use... there is always the possibility that you will develop an assay that doesn't pick other variants that you didn't know about. And I believe that that's what's happening here.”
- Dr. Kristi Miller (Cohen Commission Testimony)
Why the CFIA won’t find ISA virus until an outbreak is underway
In order for the CFIA to officially “confirm” ISA in B.C., it requires a high standard of proof called “virus isolation”. This means catching the virus alive and culturing it in a petri dish.
The only way this requirement of proof has ever been fulfilled is during an active disease outbreak on a farm where the fresh sample of a dying Atlantic salmon could be rushed to a lab very quickly. It has never been successful with wild fish anywhere in the world. As soon as a wild fish builds up enough viral loads to begin slowing down, it usually disappears into the mouth of a hungry predator. Of course, no one other than those embedded with the industry are allowed access to farmed salmon for disease testing, which makes fulfilling this requirement close to impossible.
ISA Virus 101
• Having the virus doesn’t necessarily mean you have the disease…yet. ISA virus is the pathogen whereas ISA is the deadly disease caused by it, just as HIV is the virus that may cause the disease of AIDS.
• The virus can simmer for years before outbreaks begin, as it did when it was introduced to Chile. Researchers detected the virus years before the massive epidemics began in 2007, which caused $2 billion worth of damage.
• Just because there are not active outbreaks now doesn’t mean that ISA virus is not here. When the virus becomes activated, the damage can very quickly become widespread.
• The problem is with detecting ISA virus is as soon as a fish dies, the virus begins to “shatter”. Often only segments of the viral sequence can be detected by the time a sample gets shipped to a lab. Probes that the CFIA labs are using will only detect exact matches for certain sequences
CFIA won’t test or return Alexandra Morton’s positive ISA viral samples
After Morton heard about the positive test results from Rivers Inlet, she began a sampling program gathering hundreds of samples from a wide range of B.C. salmon, including grocery-bought B.C. farmed salmon, farmed sushi, and wild salmon. Over the last year, Morton has sent hundreds of samples to Kibenge for testing.
However, when Kibenge's lab finds a positive test result for ISA virus, it must first report the positive test result to the CFIA before contacting Morton. The CFIA then confiscates the samples from Kibenge’s lab for confirmation of a reportable virus.
When Morton inquired to the CFIA about the status of those samples, she received a series of varying replies. They ranged from the CFIA was going to use up the whole sample in testing, so it would never be returned, to the CFIA wasn't going to test any of her samples because she didn’t have chain of custody. Finally, the government agency told her it had put her samples in ethanol, which means the virus could never be cultured and therefore never confirmed.
"So to confirm, we are not doing any diagnostic testing and will not be doing any diagnostic testing for ISA whatsoever," the CFIA's Gary Kruger said in an email on March 22, 1013. "No PCR testing, no virus isolation, no further diagnostic testing because such testing will be of no value to the CFIA at this time."
The CFIA claims it won’t test Morton positive samples because it doesn't know where they came from. However, the CFIA could confirm where the salmon originated using DNA testing. The samples are still in the agency's custody and the CFIA to date has never run tests on any of Morton’s positive samples.
In response Morton recently wrote in her blog: “The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), our global first line of defense against farm animal epidemics, just stacked the odds against stopping ISA virus from spreading in British Columbia. I am going to make a prediction here, based on current trends. The work I am doing with Dr. Kibenge is going to be shut down and only the CFIA will be allowed to report on ISA virus in BC. ISA virus will be successfully denied for some period of time and then there will be outbreaks.”
The CFIA “Nails” the Surveillance Piece
On June 11, 2013, the CFIA announced that it did not find ISA in its sampling of 4,175 wild salmon. It is perplexing as to why the agency would not sample sick, farmed Atlantic (European) salmon, the likely source of the European virus in question. If you were really looking for the virus, it would be the obvious place to start. Instead, it tested 4,175 wild salmon using a method that has never worked for wild salmon.
Finding the B.C. variation of the ISA virus takes using the right test. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of fish you test if you are using the wrong test and the wrong fish.
The CFIA's self-declared "surveillance objectives are to determine the absence/presence of three diseases of trade significance...[and] to support international trade negotiations by making a disease-freedom declaration that will stand international scrutiny."
During the Cohen Commission, an internal CFIA email was revealed, and it provided a glimpse into its intended handling of the B.C. ISA viral situation. It stated:
“It is clear we are turning the PR tide to our favor and this is because of the very successful performance of our spokes at the Tech Briefing yesterday…One battle is won, now we have to nail the surveillance piece, and we will win the war also."
Does this sound like an agency trying to get to the truth of a reportable virus? The CFIA’s 4,175 negative test results in wild fish and not testing farmed salmon is the CFIA's “nailing the surveillance piece”.
Remember XL Foods E. coli recall?
It was only in September and October 2012 when the CFIA was on the hot seat for its role in E. coli entering the food supply, sickening at least 18 people and resulting in Canada’s largest beef recall.
Contaminated beef slipped by the CFIA, despite numerous warnings, and it was U.S. border inspectors who discovered the presence of E. coli in a shipment from XL Foods. An independent review reported that the CFIA had a relaxed attitude toward safety standards, and there was a weak food-safety culture among workers and CFIA staff.
The CFIA is the agency responsible for stripping Kibenge’s lab. The OIE is made up of representatives or delegates who are bureaucrats from its member countries. The OIE doesn’t do its own investigation; it relies on recommendations from its delegates, and in this case, the CFIA's Martine Dubuc is Canada's OIE delegate.
Could the CFIA be acting on behalf of Canada's trade interests at the OIE? If that were the case, it would be unfortunate for an honest scientist who simply reported what he found and appears to have become yet another casualty of industry trumping science in Canada.
Twyla Roscovich is an independent documentary and marine-ecology filmmaker working on the coast of B.C. She directed Salmon Confidential.More