Two former federal scientists are facing charges after one was arrested on his way to China for carrying vials of a live bacteria that causes abortion in cattle and can be debilitating to humans.
Klaus Nielsen, a former award-winning researcher at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, had 17 vials of live brucella when the officers stopped him on his way to the Ottawa airport, the RCMP said. The arrest was made last October after nearly two years of investigation, but only announced Wednesday by the RCMP.
A Canadawide warrant has been issued for another former CFIA researcher, Yu Wei Ling, who is 48. She is a resident of Ottawa but is believed to be in China, RCMP spokesman Sergeant Richard Rollings said. He declined to say if her extradition would be sought if she was overseas.
Dr. Nielsen, 67, is free and has received a summons to appear in court on April 17.
The pair were investigated for allegedly trying to illegally commercialize CFIA scientific research, the RCMP said. Brucellosis causes abortions and infertility in cattle and some other animals, and while it has been eradicated from most of Canada, it still poses a risk to livestock and humans in some parts of the world, including Central Asia.
When transferred to humans, the infection, brucellosis, can cause fevers, pains and physical weakness but mortality rates are low. In the United States it is nevertheless considered a bioterrorism concern, said one expert.
“In terms of public risk it’s very low,” said Martin Roop, a researcher at the department of microbiology and immunology of East Carolina University.
He said brucella is classified as a bioterrorism agent because it is highly infectious, is easily spread in the air and can be debilitating to humans. There is no vaccine for humans. The bacteria causes abortion in cattle.
In 2003, a team led by Dr. Nielsen received a federal Technology Transfer Award after developing a 15-second test for brucellosis in cattle. The test the team came up with is “simple, reliable and does not requires a laboratory,” a summary of the award states.
A spokeswoman for the CFIA said she could not say when the two researchers left the agency, citing privacy concerns.
Dr. Nielsen’s name appears on the federal registration for a biotechnology company based in Richmond, Ont. E & K Consulting Limited is directed by Elizabeth Nielsen.
The company changed its name in 2011 from Peace River Biotechnology Company Limited, according to records from Industry Canada, at which time it was registered to a Richmond address under Dr. Nielsen’s name. Little information appears to be available online about what E & K Consulting does.
But a website for a company called Peace River Biotechnology says it is based in Harbin, in northeastern China. The company offers a test to detect brucella that was found to be “superior when compared to other commercially available” options, according to its website.
Police had been investigating Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Yu since getting a tip from the CFIA in March 2011, 19 months before the airport arrest. The operation was code-named Project Sentimental.
Both are being charged with breach of trust by a public officer, and Dr. Nielsen also faces several charges under the Export and Import Permits Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act.
In a brief response to questions from a reporter, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in an e-mail that the CFIA “continues to make security a priority” and had assisted the RCMP in its investigation.
All manipulations of Brucella cultures require biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) practices, meaning manipulations within biological safety cabinets, gowns, protective facial gear, gloves and negative airflow.
A source said Dr. Nielsen’s research at the CFIA only handled dead brucella bacteria fragments that had been grown and killed before being handed out at an agency lab on Fallowfield Road in Ottawa.