A lab that revealed the first evidence of an infectious virus in British Columbia salmon has been stripped of its international credentials.
The lab, run by Fred Kibenge of the Atlantic Veterinary College – University of Prince Edward Island, was one of a handful certified by the World Organization for Animal Health for its expertise in detecting the infectious salmon anemia virus.
Dr. Kibenge has said federal government officials attacked the credibility of his lab since he reported two positive tests for the ISA virus in salmon samples from the west coast – a finding that could lead to export restrictions on B.C. salmon, crippling the fish farm industry.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which has insisted there is no evidence of the virus in B.C., ordered an audit of the lab in November, 2011, which found “potential for cross-contamination.” It recommended the OIE order an independent audit, which found the lab “fell well short of acceptable quality standards” and recommended suspension of its reference laboratory status.
The OIE world delegates did so on June 13.
Dr. Kibenge, who in 2011 had told of his findings before the Cohen Commission, a federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in B.C., was not available for comment on Wednesday. However, he told The Globe and Mail in November, 2012, he believed the CFIA pushed for the audits because his findings were inconvenient.
“What they are doing here is essentially punishing me for having testified at the Cohen Commission and trying to suppress the findings … ,” he said. “It’s an attack on my credibility.”
No one from neither the CFIA nor OIE responded to interview requests on Wednesday. However, an unofficial spokesperson for the CFIA said the credentials were removed as a result of the OIE’s independent audit.
Alexandra Morton, a biologist and critic of salmon farming, said the announcement has not shaken her confidence in Dr. Kibenge’s work, which is “in close match” with that of several other labs. Meanwhile, the CFIA said preliminary positive results could not be replicated in its own tests, meaning the presence of the virus could not be confirmed.
Researchers have found segments of viral RNA – comparable to partial fingerprints – matching a Norwegian strain of ISA, Ms. Morton said.
“Canada says you have to find the entire virus before you can confirm it is ISA,” Ms. Morton said. “You cannot take a sequence of a virus and put it in a gene bank and get a match without it being ISA. No one knows how that could possibly happen unless you are dealing with ISA virus.
“I would like to see [the CFIA’s] results. I would like to see what tests they did. I would really have to see it to believe it at this point.”
She said she has “no doubt whatsoever” the move is an effort to undermine Dr. Kibenge’s work.
Simon Fraser University researcher Rick Routledge sent the samples of sockeye salmon to Dr. Kibenge in October, 2011, as part of research into why so many salmon were dying on B.C.’s central coast. Dr. Kibenge got two positive tests for the ISA virus out of 48 samples.
The virus, which is not a human health concern, is not lethal to Pacific salmon. But wild fish can host it, and transmit it to farmed Atlantic salmon, which it kills. There are also concerns the virus could mutate in its wild hosts, and suspicions it may be linked to the mysterious deaths of millions of wild salmon in B.C. rivers in recent years.
Dr. Kibenge’s lab in 2007 confirmed the first occurrence of ISA in farmed Atlantic salmon in Chile, where the virus triggered a disease outbreak that killed millions of salmon and cost Chile’s salmon farming industry an estimated $2-billion.