Saturday, March 04, 2017

Altriusm -- or Poor Judgement?

"[This is a] tragic case of an extraordinary man, a scientist who made decisions in his conduct that breached the trust of his employer of 30 years, and acted contrary to the public good."
"The motive was to promote the use of Chinese test kits, which would have had the effect of diverting customers away from using the Canadian product. Both Dr. Nielsen and the co-accused used government property to start their own business. As a public servant, he was entrusted with advancing the public good."
"As a result of the accused and Ms. Yu's [alleged] actions, it may be perceived that working with CFIA [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] comes with a risk, that Canada cannot protect their international property."
Ontario Court Justice Heather Parkins-McVey

"I know my actions were wrong, even if I justified them to myself at the time. I know my actions have embarrassed the Canadian government, and by extension, my hard-working and dedicated colleagues."
Klaus Nielsen, former federal government scientist
Former government scientist Dr. Klaus Nielsen leaves the courthouse on Tuesday, June 23, 2015 after his sentencing hearing concluded for the day. (TONY SPEARS/Ottawa Sun/Postmedia Network)
The author of numerous books and scholarly scientific papers on the Brucella bacteria, Klaus Nielsen, in his career with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as a senior scientist travelled the globe, giving lectures and advising governments on the subject of the Brucella bacteria. He worked tirelessly to eradicate brucellosis around the world, as a renowned expert. Yet his activities had him dismissed by the CFIA, and along with him a colleague, China-born Wei Ling Yu.

Dr. Nielson was arrested in 2012 at the Ottawa airport, planning to travel on to China. With him was a thermos of ice within a lunch bag, and inside the thermos was 17 vials of the Brucella bacteria, which affects cows, goats and sheep, and can also infect humans. Federal regulations in the proper transportation of the bacteria were violated by Dr. Nielson's planning to carry them with him on a flight to China.

What was almost equally grave if not more problematical was that this senior scientist's purpose was in direct breach of trust, in his partnership with a former colleague, to manufacture and sell diagnostic kits for brucellosis which Dr. Nielsen himself had helped as a government employee, to develop. The patents for the kits were held by an American-based company with the accompanying commercial rights theirs as well.

The seasoned, experienced scientist with the leading expertise in the field claimed that he hadn't understood that the information he was intent on sharing represented a violation of licensing agreements. There had been a year-and-a-half undercover RCMP investigation into Dr. Nielsen's activities relating to the brucellosis vaccine kits which he was obviously not authorized to take personal possession and use of, for marketing purposes.

The two, Dr. Nielsen and Ms. Yu, planned to manufacture and sell the diagnostic kits in China through a company they had created, Peace River Biotechnology Company. Dr. Nielsen's argument was that this was meant to be an altruistic venture, not for the purpose of enriching himself personally. What he meant to do was make the cost of those test kits cheaper for developing countries to acquire, in the very places where the disease remains prevalent.

The going price of 85 cents per kit would be reduced to 50 cents in his plan, cutting into the commercial markup of the kits.

Five years of emails were presented at trial where the use of coded language seemed to suggest quite a bit of planning and evasive sophistication. According to Judge Perkins-McVey, Dr. Nielsen's activities "shook the confidence" of Canada's international patent relationships. That the flight to China had been delayed and that the bag containing the 17 vials was handled by others than himself also presented a risk of harm.

With his expertise taken into account, said the judge, Dr. Nielsen "should have known better" than to have behaved in such a scientifically reckless manner. In his defence, Dr. Nielsen claimed not to have realized that the vials he carried contained live bacteria. An expert at the trial, however, testified that given the manner in which the vials had been packed, the credibility of Dr. Nielsen's defence must be questioned; they represented an acknowledged bio-hazard.

While giving credit to Dr. Nielsen for pleading guilty to 11 counts of breach of trust and regulatory offences so the cost of a lengthy trial could be avoided, and that he took tardy responsibility for his actions and expressed remorse for poor judgement, the 72-year-old grandfather who worked 1,500 hours of community service since his arrest, will still face a sentence that the judge arrived at after "agonizing" over it, of two years in prison.

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