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Ex-CFIA researcher charged over stray brucellosis

A former federal researcher, lauded for his work toward a quicker and cheaper brucellosis test for cattle, has been arrested and charged after allegedly taking a trip carrying vials of the live bacteria in an “unsafe manner.”

Dr. Klaus Nielsen, who had worked at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Fallowfield lab southwest of Ottawa, was first arrested in October on allegations of breach of trust by a public officer, RCMP said in a release Wednesday.

Nielsen, 67, of Richmond, Ont. now also faces “several” charges under the Export and Import Permits Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act. He next appears in court April 17 in Ottawa, RCMP said.

Another former CFIA researcher, 48-year-old Wei Ling Yu of Ottawa, faces a related charge of breach of trust by a public officer. A Canada-wide warrant has been issued for her, but she’s believed to be in China, RCMP spokesman Sgt. Richard Rollings said Wednesday.

The charges laid last week against Nielsen and Yu stem from a criminal investigation dubbed “Project Sentimental,” carried out by RCMP working with officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the federal department of foreign affairs and international trade, the Mounties said.

CFIA had first reported the matter in March 2011, RCMP said, adding the investigation focused on Nielsen and Yu’s alleged “unlawful efforts to commercialize intellectual property belonging to the CFIA and a private commercial partner.”

The actions leading to the breach-of-trust charges are believed to date back to 2005, Rollings said.

Backed up by its clandestine laboratory response team, the Ottawa Fire Services hazmat response team, and Ottawa Police Service first responders, RCMP “intercepted” Nielsen on Oct. 24. According to Rollings, Nielsen at the time was on his way to Ottawa’s airport and was scheduled to leave Canada for China.

Upon arresting and searching Nielsen, RCMP said, they found in his possession 17 vials of pathogens which they allege he was “attempting to export in an unsafe manner.”

PHAC later analyzed the vials and found them to contain live brucella bacteria. Nielsen was then arrested for breach of trust and for “unsafe transportation of a human pathogen.”

It’s believed the pathogens were to be used in the development of brucellosis test kits, Rollings said.

A CFIA spokesperson on Wednesday directed questions on the matter to the RCMP.

Brucellosis-free

Nielsen led a team of CFIA scientists who were hailed 10 years ago for their work to develop the fluorescence polarization assay (FPA) as a relatively inexpensive 15-second test for detecting brucellosis in cattle.

The FPA has since been approved as an official test for brucellosis in Canada, and by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) as a prescribed test for the bovine, porcine and caprine/ovine forms of the disease. The Fallowfield lab is an OIE reference centre for brucellosis.

Brucellosis remains a reportable, chronic and contagious livestock disease in Canada, caused by any of several types of brucella bacteria. The disease can affect many species of mammals, particularly cattle, hogs, bison, elk, deer, goats, sheep and horses.

Brucellosis can also spread from animals to people, in whom the disease is called “undulant fever.” According to CFIA, human cases of the disease are rare in Canada, prevented largely by sanitary practices in slaughterhouses and pasteurization of milk.

Canada has worked to eradicate bovine brucellosis since the 1940s and was declared brucellosis-free in 1985. The last known isolated case in domestic livestock was in a cattle herd in Saskatchewan in 1989. The only known reservoir of bovine brucellosis in wildlife is in free-ranging bison herds in and around Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

Bovine brucellosis can cause abortions in infected cows, reduced fertility in infected bulls and enlarged joints and lameness in affected cattle. Infected animals remain carriers for life.

Porcine and caprine/ovine brucellosis, the forms that affect mainly hogs and goats and sheep respectively, have never been reported in livestock or wildlife in Canada. Another type, rangiferine brucellosis, is present in Canada in a reservoir of free-roaming caribou and reindeer in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

Management plans are set up to prevent the spread of brucellosis from affected wildlife to domestic livestock, CFIA said.

Related stories:
Brucellosis not found, quarantines off B.C. farms, June 9, 2010
CFIA to ramp up swine disease tests at packers, Jan. 12, 2011

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