Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Salmongate phase two

Dr. Gary Marty. Photo UC Davis

For the scientific establishment in charge of covering up the Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) trail, salmongate has just taken a turn for the worst. We have now learned that both government and scientists have known for over 10 years - you read that well - about the European strain of ISA roaming free in BC waters. But they elected to cover it up.

This report is from the Seattle Times. But expect to read many more similar articles in the coming hours and days:

 A decade before this fall's salmon-virus scare, a Canadian government researcher said she found a similar virus in more than 100 wild fish from Alaska to Vancouver Island.

Canadian officials never told the public or scientists in the United States about those tests not even after evidence of the virus discovered in October was treated as an international emergency, according to documents and emails obtained by The Seattle Times.

The researcher's work surfaced only this week after she sought and was denied permission by a Canadian official to try to have her old data published in a scientific journal.

As we discover in complete disbelief those new headlines popping up around the world, we wonder what the scientific establishment's next move might possibly be.

I got a preview of that last week in an email conversation with Dr. Gary Marty, a senior fish pathologist with the Province of British Columbia. Their next move? They don't have one. They'll just keep denying ISA until they drop. As the trained superior minds that they are, they still believe that you can think a problem away.

Ironically, I initiated my conversation with Dr. Marty on a somewhat different (and retrospectively less explosive) topic than ISA's presence in BC. And it was he who self-defeatingly insisted on bringing our discussion back to the position that there is "no ISA in BC".

On October 31, I wrote an open letter to Dr. Marty in which I asked him to elaborate on a comment he had made while under oath at the Cohen Commission that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) “actually discourages us to test for international foreign animal diseases [such as ISA]. They prefer that they be called.

That statement was a pretty big deal for me, because it suggested that the regulatory agencies in charge of protecting us against animal disease pandemics were at sleep at the wheel, sloppy, complacent, dismissive, negligent, or worse. So I wanted to hear directly from Dr. Marty what he actually meant with this comment.

Dr. Marty kindly responded to my letter by indicating that he was going on a two-week vacation but he remained confident that our farmed salmon "do not have ISA". Three weeks later, I had still not heard back from him. So I poked him again with an email on November 21. He responded with the following three points:
  1. He advised me to contact CFIA directly with my questions.
  2. He was in agreement with CFIA’s finding that there was "no confirmed case of ISA in BC".
  3. He justified his position as follows: “When I see positive results for a disease not known to be in BC, in a species not known to be susceptible to the disease, and the fish had no clinical signs (or “classic lesions”) of the disease, I suspect that the results are false positives until proven otherwise.
A disease not known to be in BC, in a species not known to be susceptible to the disease... Wow. Reading that statement in light of the Seattle Times article will get your head spinning. Dr. Marty was referring here to a batch of 48 fish sampled by Drs. Alexandra Morton and Rick Routledge, two of which had tested positive for ISA back in October. Marty was also telling me here that no classic lesions indicative of ISA were observed in any of those fish. But how would he know that? He was not in the field to make those observations when those particular fish were sampled.

But I stuck to my guns and brought Dr. Marty back onto my topic: "My specific questions were referring to some comments that you personally made on public record at the Cohen Commission. As such, my questions were addressed to you. The CFIA would not be in any position to comment on what you have said."

Dr. Marty replied by saying that he had some important work to do ("I have several other fish cases that require my attention"). He did find time, though, to drag me back yet again onto the topic of ISA being unconfirmed in BC, inviting me to meditate on the OIE's definition of what constitutes a virus outbreak. At that point I was growing a little impatient:

Dear Dr. Marty, I am confused. You keep referring me back to the issue of whether or not the presence of ISA has been confirmed in British Columbia.” This, I insisted again, “does not constitute my questions.

I waited for Dr. Marty's response but instead, I received an email from Dr. Paul Kitching, Provincial Chief Veterinary Officer, a man who had also denied the presence of ISA in a recent press conference. "Dear Ivan," he wrote, "Dr. Marty has asked me to respond to your email to allow him to catch up on his current workload." Referring to my questions to Dr. Marty, he wrote: "CFIA did not have any authority to stop us looking. ... at no time have they indicated that they do not want us to maintain our testing."

At last! Someone was answering my questions. The problem was that Kitching's response contradicted what Marty had said to Justice Cohen. So I wrote back to Kitching pointing him to that. His response:

Dear Ivan,

Thank you for your email. I regret that you are still confused, even though Dr. Marty and myself have done our best to answer your questions. I see no value in continuing this exchange.


Paul Kitching

And on that note, my conversation with those two eminent scientists came to an end.

This exchange obviously takes a particular meaning in the context of today's shattering headlines. Let's recap what we found:
  • Dr. Gary Marty makes a pretty damning comment at the Cohen Commission suggesting that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was at sleep at the wheel in its mandate to protect BC's ecosystems from foreign diseases. As we discover now that ISA has knowingly roamed BC for ten years or so, such negligence may be viewed as criminal.
  • Dr. Marty's comment is indefensible, and when asked to explain himself, he does not even attempt to defend it. Rather, he chooses to respond on a completely different level - that there is "no ISA outbreak in BC". By this he implies that it really didn't matter that CFIA was dismissive and incompetent about the disease, since in his view that threat never materialized. The problem is that it did materialize, and it now appears that people in power (including some scientists) have known about it for ten years. 
  • Marty's system of defense is consistent with that adopted by the CFIA, DFO, and the Province of BC which chose to co-organize a press conference a few weeks ago around the core message that "there is no ISA in BC". We now know that at least some people in some of those public agencies have know for at least some time (ten years) that this statement was factually false.
  • The only way that our public agencies can now sustain their broken defense system that "there is no ISA in BC" is if they somehow manage to suppress any further independent testing performed on behalf of private citizens such as Alexandra Morton. And to their credit they have succeed in Canada, as in this country today, quite shamefully, no labs will accept any  samples from individuals and independent groups. But how do they intend to prevent other labs worldwide to conduct such tests? In particular, how do they plan to tame American labs after headlines such as those of the Seattle Times? 
  • It is bewildering that a top gun scientist like Gary Marty would not hesitate to make unscientific statements to advance a point which turns out to be factually false. In this instance, he claimed that fish he never saw presented no lesions of ISA (unscientific statement) as a way of supporting his message that "there is no ISA in BC" (false statement).
  • Finally, Dr. Marty and Dr. Kitching manifest yet again their utter contempt for the general public, not the least in the rudeness with which Kitching chose to bring my conversation with him to an end.
In a CBC Radio interview a few weeks ago, Dr. Marty made the following cocky, and also strangely prophetic, statement:

If I see problems with introduced pathogens or diseases, I will report them. That's actually part of my ethical responsibility as a veterinarian. If I don't report diseases like that that come in, I am subject to losing my career.

Putting your career on the line as you did on radio was brave but unwise, Dr. Marty. People may want to hold you to that pledge. Salmongate is unravelling at a breathtaking pace. It now appears you have failed to either discover or report those introduced pathogens for the past ten years. At best, that would make you incompetent. And at worst - well, unlike you, I will refrain from jumping to conclusions. That day when you choose to bring your career to an end may arrive sooner than you expected.

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