Fakieh paid nearly $900,000 for 8,000 bottles, all mislabeled on USDA shipping forms.
BANGOR, MAINE—A U.S. district court judge is expected this month to sentence dr. mark a. dekich, a 51-year-old researcher facing up to five years in prison for smuggling avian influenza virus into the united states and lying about it to federal agencies.
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According to court records, Dekich, of Clinton, N.C., pleaded guilty Nov. 9 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Maine, to one count of conspiring to smuggle and making false statements to the government. In exchange for his plea, Dekich will receive immunity and a lighter sentence that in addition to prison time could include a maximum $250,000 fine and up to three years of home detention, federal court documents show.
The veterinary scientist is the latest person to plead guilty to a 1998 smuggling case that appears to illustrate U.S. government intentions to beef up enforcement regulations on the possession and importation of disease agents and pathogens. The case also involves a university researcher and six executives at a Winslow, Maine, research laboratory that specializes in creating poultry vaccines.
Dekich, a renowned poultry expert with a history of testifying before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on food animal topics, could not be reached for comment. Joseph Groff III, Dekich's attorney, refused to discuss the case.
"In this district, while the matter is pending, we are not allowed to talk to the press," Groff says. "Judges here very much frown on defendants or their lawyers talking about the case until the matter is resolved by the court."
Dekich's plea culminates a joint investigation by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, United States Department of Commerce and United States Department of Agriculture officials. According to their reports, the case begins in 1998, when Dekich practiced veterinary medicine at Fakieh Poultry Farms in Saudi Arabia, a large chicken producer for the Middle East, and discovered a viral outbreak among the flocks. Seeking assistance on identifying the virus and in developing a vaccine, Dekich contacted John K. Rosenberger, professor and chairperson of the Department of Animal Science and Agricultural Biochemistry at the University of Delaware.
Court documents show Rosenberger, who also has pleaded guilty to similar charges, and Dekich discussed obtaining necessary permits to import the virus into the United States for identification, but that the veterinarian insisted the process was too time consuming. Dekich also asked that information about the virus remain confidential, as he did not want Saudi or American authorities to learn that avian influenza had infected the farms, records show.
On July 13, 1998, Rosenberger's office received a package labeled "isolates of influenza" from Dekich, which including the avian influenza subtype. The samples also were sent to John Donahoe, president of Maine Biological Laboratories (MBL), the company hired to produce an autogenous vaccine for the disease, court records show.
According to e-mailed messages obtained by authorities, Rosenberger collaborated with MBL on the project, and in January 1999, directed the company to send a sample of the virus to the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) in Ames, Iowa. NVSL was asked to definitely type the virus, and Rosenberger, knowing he could not list the sample as coming from Saudi Arabia without raising concerns, labeled the isolates as derived from Delaware, records show.
In February 1999, NVSL identified the sample as avian influenza subtype H9N2. Almost immediately, MBL began creating vaccines. Fakieh paid nearly $900,000 for 8,000 bottles, all mislabeled on USDA shipping forms as a killed Newcastle vaccine, records show.
In late 1999, Fakieh ordered yet another shipment of the vaccine, which MBL produced. But this time, laboratory employees became aware that someone had written a letter to the government stating MBL had unlawfully produced an avian influenza vaccine for the Saudi farm. Fearing a "surprise" inspection, MBL employees loaded the vaccines into a car and stored it in the garage of an executive's home. The vaccine was later moved to an off-site storage facility and destroyed, court documents show.
Dekich used the last of the vaccine in November 1999. In a confidential letter addressed to "His Excellency Sheikh Abdulrahman Fakieh," the veterinarian recounted the influenza outbreak on the farm. He also expressed the need for a coverup:
"With the world health publicity about avian influenza, it was a priority of the company to keep confidentiality on all outside work with reference laboratories." the Nov. 7 letter states, adding that the virus matched the molecular typing of isolates from Hong Kong and China. "The human epidemioliogical consequences can be severe if this H9N2 virus is allowed to continue to replicate and resort its genome (genes). Fakieh Poultry Farms must go avian influenza negative and protect that negative status."
More than six years after Dekich mailed these samples, two MBL employees have been fined and put on probation while four former company executives, the veterinarian and poultry professor await sentencing on charges ranging from mail fraud and smuggling to conspiracy.
A call placed by DVM Newsmagazine to MBL reveals the company, which reportedly has spent roughly $500,000 defending its case, has changed its name to Lohman Animal Health.
Meanwhile, the University of Delaware, reportedly unaware of the case until Rosenberger's guilty plea, is overhauling its laboratory auditing procedures, officials say, in an effort to guard against future mishandling.
In this case, the mishandling "involved sophisticated means," the government says.
"The defendant was an organizer or leader of the activity, and it involved five or more participants, or was otherwise extensive," the attorney general's office contends in Dekich's indictment. "The offense involved more than minimal planning."