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Two bald eagles fight off seagulls for the remains of dead salmon along the Harrison River, B.C.. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Two bald eagles fight off seagulls for the remains of dead salmon along the Harrison River, B.C.. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

SCIENCE

Ottawa moves against PEI lab that reported virus in B.C. salmon Add to ...

A lab that revealed the first evidence of an infectious virus in British Columbia salmon should be stripped of its international credentials, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

In a letter to the World Organization for Animal Health, the CFIA urges the international agency to accept the findings of an independent audit that recommends “suspension of the reference laboratory status,” of the facility.

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The lab is run by Frederick Kibenge at the Atlantic Veterinary College-University of Prince Edward Island.

The CFIA has long maintained infectious salmon anemia is not present on the West Coast. If the disease is confirmed by the government, it could lead to export restrictions on B.C. salmon.

The agency has promised to sample nearly 8,000 salmon in B.C. in response to concerns about ISA. But the results of those tests are not yet known, and the CFIA has challenged the validity of Dr. Kibenge’s tests, saying government labs couldn’t replicate his results.

The letter has surprised other experts, who worry the government is trying to silence a scientist whose findings the CFIA disputes.

“This is stunning news,” said Rick Routledge, a professor at Simon Fraser University, who sent the lab samples that showed a ISA virus was present on the Pacific coast. “This comes as a shock. . . my head is spinning. I had no idea they would take it that far,” he said.

Prof. Routledge said the CFIA was “placed in a very awkward situation” when Dr. Kibenge’s lab reported positive hits for the ISA virus in salmon collected at Rivers Inlet, on B.C.’s Central Coast.

Brian Evans, chief food safety officer for the CFIA, has written to the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, requesting that the international body act in accordance with the audit findings, and “place the reference laboratory status at the Atlantic Veterinary College in abeyance.”

Dr. Evans was not available for comment on Thursday and the OIE did not respond to a request for an interview.

Dr. Kibenge’s lab is one of only two facilities in the world recognized by the OIE for its expertise in detecting the ISA virus, outbreaks of which have devastated fish farms in Scotland and Chile.

After Dr. Kibenge’s findings were made public at an SFU press conference in October, his lab was hit with two audits – one in November, 2011, by the CFIA, and a second in August, by an independent panel appointed by the Canadian government and the OIE.

In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Kibenge said he believes the CFIA pushed both audits in order to punish him for his inconvenient findings, which he testified about last year before the Cohen Commission, a recently completed federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in B.C.

“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. It’s an attack on my credibility,” he said. “ I just feel compelled to continue with my research work because there is nothing here that I can see that I’ve done wrong.”

Dr. Kibenge said the initial CFIA audit raised some concerns about his operating procedures, and in response he wrote a detailed letter to the government, in April, stating how he would address those issues. He said the second audit caught him by surprise, but it raised similar issues to the first audit.

The second audit concludes his lab “fell well short of acceptable quality standards.” The first raised concerns about possible cross contamination of samples.

Dr. Kibenge said he stands by his findings .

Alexandra Morton, an independent researcher, said she has found the ISA virus in both farmed and wild B.C. salmon.

“Dr. Kibenge is a recognized expert on the ISA virus,” she said. “What the CFIA is doing to him is really unfair.”

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