Scientists concerned over chill in reporting of salmon virus after lab delisted

Scientists fear there could be a reluctance to report a deadly fish virus after the first lab in Canada to say it was detected in British Columbia salmon was stripped of a special reference status by an international agency.

Marine researchers say they were stunned to hear that the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, recently suspended the reference status from a research laboratory at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island.

Run by Fred Kibenge, who is considered one of the world's leading authorities on infectious salmon anemia, it was one of only two labs in the world recognized by the group for the testing of the virus.

Kibenge's work came under scrutiny in 2011 after he said he found evidence of the virulent disease in wild B.C. sockeye salmon, challenging the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's position that the virus is not present in the province.

His findings led the inspection agency to conduct an audit and send their findings to the OIE, which did its own audit and announced last month that it was delisting Kibenge's lab in a move that some say could discourage reporting of infectious salmon anemia.

"This is creating a very chilly environment for people to investigate the presence of this virus in the Pacific Ocean," said Rick Routledge, a professor at Simon Fraser University who gave Kibenge the salmon samples that tested positive.

"It's a very distressing situation."

Routledge, who has studied juvenile sockeye salmon migrations for 10 years in B.C., said he wanted to understand why the population was declining and used Kibenge's lab to examine possible causes.

The findings caused the Cohen Commission, a federal inquiry looking into the decline of sockeye salmon in B.C., to extend its hearings so Kibenge and others could testify about the possible presence of the virus.

Other labs said they recorded positive test results, but some were later deemed to be false positives.

The influenza-type virus devastated farmed salmon stocks in Chile in 2007 and has been found in salmon aquaculture operations in Atlantic Canada, leading to culls and quarantines. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it can kill up to 90 per cent of infected salmon, but does not pose a risk to human health.

Critics have said the federal agency went after Kibenge's lab to suppress the findings and protect B.C.'s lucrative salmon export market, which could be hit with trade restrictions if the virus is detected.

A spokeswoman with the CFIA declined an interview request but said in an email that it was obligated to confirm the test results at another lab, which did not corroborate Kibenge's results and led to the two audits.

"The evaluation ... identified concerns, which may have led to the questionable ISA test results," said Elena Koutsavakis, without elaborating on the concerns.

"The OIE audit, performed by an international panel of scientific experts, found a series of weaknesses affecting the quality of diagnoses performed at the Atlantic Veterinary College laboratory."

An official with the college said Kibenge did not want to comment, but the school's dean said he didn't see the CFIA's actions as punitive and that he would comply with it.

Don Reynolds said he thought Kibenge ran his lab appropriately and will continue to test for the virus. But, he concedes that it's not clear how the loss of status will affect the school.

"Our reputation is not just based on one situation, so I think time will tell," he said. "We'll just let that play out."

Bernard Vallat, director general at the OIE in Paris, dismissed claims that the organization was pressured by Canadian officials to find fault with Kibenge's work and strip the lab of the status.

Vallat said it was delisted because of "inadequate features" regarding methodology that he would not elaborate on because they have not been made public.

"I understand there is a lot of controversy, but our experts are independent, they are trusted by all our members and they did their job," he said. "So from my point of view, we did not use politics to do that."

Alexandra Morton, a fish researcher and activist in B.C., has no doubt the virus is in the province but says the CFIA is not doing proper testing to detect it.

She says other labs have found evidence of the virus in farmed fish, which are penned in areas along the migration route of wild salmon — raising concerns that it could spread among the wild fish.

"The experiment is underway in British Columbia and we'll just see what happens next," she said. "Either the industry recognizes they have it and get those infected fish out or we just play Russian roulette like we are now and eventually it will go virulent."