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Former Food Inspection Researcher Charged for Trying to Export Vials of Dangerous Pathogens

Allison Cross | 13/04/03 | Last Updated: 13/04/03 4:50 PM ET

RCMP have charged two former researchers with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for allegedly attempting to export dangerous pathogens that could infect humans and livestock.

Dr. Klaus Nielsen and Wei Ling Yu have been charged with breach of trust by a public officer, the Mounties said Wednesday in a news release.

Nielsen will appear in court later this month while the RCMP have issued a Canada-wide warrant for Yu’s arrest.

The RCMP began the probe after the CFIA reported the scientists in March 2011.

Dubbed Project SENTIMENTAL, the investigation focused on the former researchers’ “unlawful efforts to commercialize intellectual property belonging to the CFIA and a private commercial partner.”

RCMP apprehended Nielsen on Oct. 24, 2012 as he made his way to the Ottawa airport to fly to China. After he was searched, police found 17 vials of pathogens that testing revealed contained live brucella bacteria.

He was arrested for breach of trust by a public officer and the unsafe transportation of a human pathogen.

Police believe Yu is currently in China.

Intercepting Nielsen required the help of the Ottawa police, the RCMP’s Clandestine Laboratory Response Team and the Ottawa Fire Services Hazardous Materials Response Team, the RCMP news release said.

“The RCMP, in collaboration with their partners, were able to quickly and efficiently mobilize and respond to this threat which helped minimize the public’s risk of exposure to these contagious substances,” it said.

Brucellosis, the highly-contagious disease caused by exposure to brucella bacteria, can spread between different species of mammals, including humans. It particularly affects cattle, deer, goats, sheep and horses, although the bovine strain has been largely eradicated from Canada, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Canada declared itself free of bovine brucellosis in 1985. The disease infects the blood and lymphatic systems of cattle, resulting in infected reproductive organs, joints and mammary glands, as well as abortions and infertility.

Human cases are rare in Canada. Humans can contract the bacteria by inhaling, eating unpasteurized dairy products, or coming into contact with infected animals or their tissues.

Nielsen, who faces one charge under the Criminal Code and several under the Export and Import Permits Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act, is due in court in Ottawa on April 17.

A spokeswoman for the CFIA said the agency couldn’t discuss specific details of the case because of privacy regulations.

“The Agency conducted an internal review of laboratory security procedures to identify areas for improvement,” Lisa Murphy said in an email. “Measures to enhance security were put in place at all CFIA laboratories across Canada.”

In 2003, Nielsen, along with five other researchers, was awarded the Technology Transfer Award for his work developing a 15-second test for detecting brucellosis in cattle. In a photo posted on an archived page of the CFIA website, Nielsen poses alongside his colleagues.

“[In] Canada, the potential economic impact of an outbreak of such a disease is frightening,” reads the text accompanying the photo.

“Canada is a major exporter of animals, especially swine and cattle. Dr. Klaus Nielsen, lead scientist for the team, points out, “Our success rests on our ability to claim disease-free animals and products.”"

The researchers partnered with Diachemix, a U.S. company, to manufacture and license the brucellosis test.

“Known as “undulant fever” in humans, brucellosis lasts for months, inducing an intermittent fever and debilitating, flu-like symptoms,” the archived website reads.

“In developing countries, where dairy products from diseased cattle, sheep and goats are consumed, thousands of cases of human brucellosis still occur.”

James Scott, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said the pathogens Nielsen is accused of carrying wouldn’t have posed an immediate public threat.

“The reality of that hazard is that it’s pretty low,” said Scott, who studies biological hazards.

“The greater hazard is that this particular group of agents are potentially weaponizable and … in certain jurisdictions, they have been eradicated from livestock, like in Canada, so after the Herculean efforts required to eradicate pathogens like this from livestock, one doesn’t want to re-introduce them.”

Canada’s Public Health Agency and the Department of Foreign Affairs also assisted with the investigation, the RCMP said.

Klaus and Yu also co-authored a study about brucellosis detection, which was published in the Croatian Medical Journal in 2010.

National Post