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Scientist claims early evidence of salmon virus, feared lab would be closed

VANCOUVER, B.C. – A Canadian scientist testifying in front of a commission on the collapse of the Fraser River salmon fishery says that tests done as far back as 2002 did find indicators of the Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus in pacific salmon and that her lab had discovered evidence of the virus from fish gathered in 1986.

Dr Kristi Miller, Head of Molecular Genetics in Nanaimo for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Ocean, testified in Vancouver, B.C., that Canada's food inspection agency was not happy with her doing the tests.  

She said there was a general feeling she should not be looking at viruses or diseases. She was fearful that all samples would be taken from her lab and was also very concerned that samples from her genomics program, also based in the lab, would be removed.

When asked by commission lawyer Brock Martland if there was any indication of a virus, Dr Miller testified, "there is a virus here very similar to ISA."

Miller added that it has not been established if the virus causes any disease.  She is continuing to test for the virus. She said she also tested fish samples stored in her lab from 1986 and found evidence of ISA. It is not yet known what strain of the virus may exist in the Pacific salmon.

Earlier ISA finding

In October, researchers with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia announced they had detected infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, in two wild juvenile Pacific salmon collected from the province's central coast, prompting fears the influenza-like virus could wreck the Pacific Northwest salmon fishing industry.

ISA is not harmful to humans, but the virus has previously inflicted heavy losses on Atlantic fish farms. The big unknown is how vulnerable wild Pacific salmon and herring are. American researchers in the Northwest are currently running tests to confirm the virus is present and determine the virus threat.

Fears of Canada suppressing information

Last month, Sen. Maria Cantwell called for stronger communication between American and Canadian officials following the disclosure that Canada failed to reveal the results of tests that appear to show the presence of the potentially deadly salmon virus nearly a decade before a salmon-virus scare in October.

Federal fisheries officials in Canada dismissed the report's conclusions, according to the Global Edmonton in Canada.

In an emailed statement, fisheries officials said the tests used by Molly Kibenge, one of the report's authors, are highly sensitive and often result in false positives.

"Appropriate follow-up was done on Dr. Kibenge's work using more thorough testing procedures and, based on the best science available, it was concluded that her results had produced a false positive and there was no presence of ISA in her samples," stated the officials.

However, the government's claims did not ally critics who say it should have published the report.

"We had no knowledge of any of this," Jim Winton told The Seattle Times. Winton is a top fish virologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle, who reviewed the researcher's findings this week.

"No one ever revealed that there was a publication that was ready to go to a journal or that the data were as compelling as they appear to be. This is puzzling and very frustrating. It's unfortunate that this information was not available sooner. This should have been followed up years ago," Winton said.

The virus is considered so dangerous that, according to the Times, if its presence is confirmed, Canada is obligated to report it to the World Organization for Animal Health, just as it would foot-and-mouth disease or bird flu. Such a report would be a devastating blow to British Columbia's aquaculture industry.

Earlier controversy over findings

This is not the first time potential viruses threats have been discovered in B.C. salmon. The Cohen Commission was tasked with the investigation into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River salmon run, and the results of the investigation have also pointed to Salmon Leukemia Virus (SLV), another lethal virus that kills wild Sockeye salmon.

Miller published an article in the U.S. journal Science last January on SLV and B.C. salmon, though the source of the virus remained inconclusive.

The Cohen Commission and Dr. Miller gained media attention over the summer, stemming from Dr. Miller's supposed "muzzling" to prevent her from interviewing with the media until she testified at the hearings. However, the CBC reports that the commission didn't actually sto Dr. Miller from publishing any research.

Commission background

Miller is testifying with two other scientists from Canada and one via teleconference from Norway. The Cohen Commission was created two years ago to study the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, which also habitate in American waterways.

This hearing regarding the ISA virus is being held in a modern conference room with dozens of lawyers and onlookers gathered around in elevating levels of circles.

The lawyers represent multiple levels of government and stakeholders involved in the fishing & aquaculture industries. The scientists were crossed examined by some of those lawyers.

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