04/04/2013 05:33 EDT | Updated 06/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Researcher in pathogen probe travelled to China, prof says

A former Canadian Food Inspection Agency researcher travelled back and forth to China on business before he was arrested for allegedly trying to export CFIA property to Asia, according to an acquaintance.

Dr. Klaus Nielsen, 67, of Richmond, Ont., has been charged with breach of trust after a 19-month RCMP investigation. He also faces several charges under the Export and Import Permits Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act.

Another former CFIA researcher, Wei Ling Yu, 48, of Ottawa, has also been charged with breach of trust.

The investigation into the researchers began when the CFIA contacted the force in March 2011. The RCMP believed they were looking into possible economic espionage, according to RCMP spokesman Sgt. Richard Rollings.

In October 2012, RCMP and Ottawa police intercepted Nielsen as he was making his way to the Ottawa airport for a trip to China.

Seventeen vials of pathogen — live brucella bacteria that can infect livestock and humans — were found in Nielsen's possession, RCMP allege.

A CFIA spokesperson told CBC News Friday that "as standard practice, various pathogens are stored and used at CFIA laboratories for various research purposes, such as diagnosing animal diseases and developing vaccines."

The spokesperson said the types of pathogens handled at each laboratory depend on the laboratory's containment level. The pathogen seized in the Nielsen case is a Level 3 pathogen, the spokesperson said.

Level 3 pathogens are those that "may cause serious or potentially lethal disease as a result of exposure by the inhalation route," according to the American Biological Safety Association.

Charges shock professional acquaintance

Earl Brown is a professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert on viruses. He's also executive director of the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre.

Brown told CBC News he met Nielsen several times professionally. He also met Yu, whom he described as Nielsen's scientific assistant.

Nielsen and Yu also worked in China, Brown said.

"I knew they had active work and were developing tests there but I didn't know exactly the nature of the details of his work," Brown said. "I knew it was with people who were interested in agriculture in China but I didn't know the professional links or the name of the institutes."

The charges, announced this week publicly for the first time, shocked Brown.

"I was quite shocked, I knew he worked in the area, I knew he was going to China back and forth but to hear he was caught with the materials without proper documentation and was charged with intellectual property issues," Brown said.

"I was quite surprised though I have an understanding that if you have a diagnostic test, that that is a commercial entity, and so that aspect did make sense," he said.

"But I was surprised to hear the details of the information, not many details but just the bare bones that it was related to taking intellectual property from his previous employer, which is CFIA, to someone else."

The RCMP believe Yu is now in China, and a Canada-wide warrant has been issued for her arrest.

Nielsen was in court Wednesday morning and is next scheduled to appear in court on April 17.

Brucella outbreaks in China, not Canada

According to a post on the CFIA website, brucella has not been detected in Canada since 1984 but cattle are regularly checked for brucellosis.

In June 2012, hundreds of millions of people were threatened by a brucella outbreak in China.

"Known as 'undulant fever' in humans, brucellosis lasts for months, inducing an intermittent fever and debilitating, flu-like symptoms," according to the CFIA website.

In 2003, Nielsen was one of six CFIA researchers awarded the Technology Transfer Award for developing a 15-second test for detecting brucellosis in cattle. The U.S. company Diachemix manufactured and licensed the test.

In 2010, the Croatian Medical Journal published a paper, written by Yu and Nielsen, about their efforts to detect brucella bacteria.

The RCMP's investigation into Nielsen and Yu also involved the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a statement issued Wednesday that "the CFIA continues to make security a priority and has fully co-operated and assisted the RCMP in its investigation."