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Ottawa acted quickly after contentious 2011 report of salmon virus, documents show

Timber Whitehouse checks the sockeye salmon stock on the Adams River on Oct. 26, 2011

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Controversial reports that a potentially lethal salmon virus had been found in the waters off British Columbia last year drew a fast, co-ordinated response from the federal government, tied up resources of three ministries for months, and even required the assistance of Canadian consular officials in the United States, newly released information indicates.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act detail the lengths Ottawa went to try to confirm and then respond to an October, 2011, announcement by Simon Fraser University professor Rick Routledge and salmon-farming critic Alexandra Morton that infectious salmon anaemia virus had been found in two of 48 sockeye smolts collected from the province's Central Coast.

Federal officials have repeatedly reported they haven't been able to confirm the presence in B.C. of the virus, which can't infect humans but poses a serious threat to farmed and wild salmon stocks because it can cause anemia, hemorrhaging and lead to death.

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In November, news broke that a lab at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, which conducted the contentious tests on the B.C. smolts in question, had been audited by the World Organisation for Animal Health (known as OIE) after member countries became concerned its work was not consistent with findings from other researchers.

Behind the scenes, a draft summary of a Dec. 12, 2011, conference call between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada shows officials inside one DFO branch were still dealing with questions about the virus almost two months after the October, 2011, announcement.

Unfortunately, the entirety of what was said on Dec. 12, 2011, remains unclear because much of the document has been blacked out. During the conference call, officials discussed how the federal government could engage Americans on the issue. The summary indicated a "climate of mistrust" persisted in the U.S., even after the CFIA announced earlier that month that followup tests couldn't confirm the presence of the virus. It also noted the CFIA had "extensive discussions" with partner agencies in the U.S.

Ms. Morton was not surprised by the response. "This is now an international incident that they've got going on here, because what about the countries that are buying farmed salmon from British Columbia thinking that this is an ISA-free zone?" she said.

Meantime, the OIE audit of the AVC lab will be reported at a conference in May, 2013.The OIE has already stated publicly a "series of weaknesses in the system have a direct impact on the quality of diagnosis conducted by AVC."

As a result, the college could lose its designation as a international reference laboratory focusing on the virus.

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