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CFIA questions accuracy of lab that tests for salmon anemia

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has called into question one of the world's top reference laboratories over its detection of infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAv) in B.C. farmed salmon.

The story broke this morning with a report by Mark Hume in The Globe and Mail, stating that CFIA had written to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), asking for an audit of the Atlantic Veterinary College laboratory at the University of Prince Edward Island.

The lab, run by Dr. Fred Kibenge, has for years tested samples for ISAv. Dr. Kibenge testified during the Cohen Commission hearings.

Contacted by email on Friday morning, Dr. Kibenge told The Tyee: "We have been asked to direct all media inquiries to Anna MacDonald, AVC External Relations Officer." No comment from Ms. McDonald has been received as of Friday afternoon.

CFIA, however, did respond to a Tyee inquiry:

In response to your request for additional information related to the audit conducted by the CFIA of the Atlantic Veterinary College laboratories, the objective of the CFIA audit was to assess laboratory capability in biocontainment, quality assurance program and validation of Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA) test methods performed at the OIE ISA reference laboratory at the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) to assess conformity with acceptable practices.

The audit findings recognized that the OIE ISA reference laboratory at the AVC has a solid foundation of knowledge on ISA disease however the audit noted a number of weaknesses and gaps in the area of quality assurance and the validation of test methods used which could possibly lead to inconsistent results.

As the Canadian delegate to the 178 member country World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), Dr. Evans received advisement from the Delegate of another OIE member country of concerns that samples submitted to the OIE ISA reference laboratory at the AVC as part of a disease investigation in their country had given results that were not consistent with the results they had received from other laboratories to whom they had also submitted samples. It was determined that the disease was not in fact present in the other country.

Following discussion with the Dean of the Atlantic Veterinary College it was agreed that there was a need to understand the basis of the discrepancy in the test results. As a result, both Dr. Evans and the Delegate of the other country informed the OIE Central Bureau and asked that an independent assessment be conducted by an international panel of subject matter experts.

The identity of the "other country" was not given.

In an email to her followers this afternoon, wild salmon biologist and advocate Alexandra Morton wrote:

It has been revealed today that the CFIA asked the OIE (Office of International Epizootics, the World Organization for Animal Health), to strip Dr. Kibenge's lab of its status as one of only two OIE reference labs for ISA virus. Dr. Kibenge is the scientist testing the BC farm salmon I am sampling.

Is the CFIA simply following due diligence? Is there something wrong with Dr. Kibenge's lab?

There are some extenuating circumstances. A few weeks ago the OIE changed the definition of an ISA virus - positive region. Previously, a region could only be designated positive if the "disease" was found. Now a region is positive if the virus is "detected."

Therefore if the OIE keeps their lab - BC would be designated as ISAv positive. The CFIA testified under oath at the Cohen Commission in December 2011 that if ISAv is confirmed in British Columbia, BC farm salmon trade could cease.

Stakes are high all around. This could be the end of farm salmon in BC, or it could be the open door to an ISA epidemic with no understanding of what this will mean to the North Pacific.

When Dr. Kibenge diagnosed ISAv for the first time in farm salmon in Chile, he was right and the resulting outbreak cost $2 billion. There are no wild salmon in Chile, that was just the impact on the salmon feedlot industry. The virus was eventually traced back to Norway. Here the stakes are even higher.

Morton has posted additional information on her blog.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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