New research will broaden Canada’s ability to identify strains of oyster-related illnesses

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By Milthon Lujan

Vancouver, Canada.- Every year people around the world enjoy oysters from British Columbia (BC) but oyster-related illnesses have posed risks to human health, and the BC oyster industry. Several outbreaks from 2015 to 2018 resulted in severe cases of gastroenteritis, and serious viral or bacterial infections including noroviruses and Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp).

Noroviruses are highly contagious and are the leading cause of non-bacterial, acute gastroenteritis in humans, an illness that usually includes diarrhea and/or vomiting. Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp) is a naturally occurring marine bacteria also known to cause gastroenteritis. Both pathogens can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of raw or undercooked oysters.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Genome British Columbia (Genome BC) are funding three projects that will broaden Canada’s ability to identify strains of norovirus and Vp and positively change the way shellfish-related illness outbreaks and food safety investigations are handled. The first two projects are through collaborations with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), a program of the Provincial Health Services Authority, and the University of British Columbia (UBC): UPCOAST-V which targets Vp and UPCOAST-N, which targets Norovirus. The projects, led by Dr. Linda Hoang (BCCDC and UBC), Katie Eloranta (CFIA), Dr. Natalie Prystajecky (BCCDC and UBC) and Dr. Paul Levett (BCCDC) will develop tools to support food safety investigations and illness outbreak management, limiting economic impacts on the industry. Stakeholders and end-users for this project include the BC Shellfish Growers Association, Regional Health Authorities and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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Specifically, these two projects will help to:

– Reduce the number of oyster-related illnesses through improved detection of Norovirus and Vp, leading to improved outbreak response;
– Support timely identification of contaminated products for food safety investigations, limiting the scope of recalls, and broad harvest area closures;
– Evaluate if post-harvest handling procedures are impacting the levels of Vp bacteria in oysters. This will help to determine the most effective preventive measures for the oyster industry;

Improve laboratory methods to generate and share high-quality data among involved partners.

The third project, New tools to forecast and prevent norovirus contamination of farmed oysters, is being led by Vancouver Island University’s Dr. Tim Green and the BC Shellfish Growers Association. With a focus on norovirus in the environment, the project has the following research objectives:

– Demonstrating new tools for the detection of human sewage pollution as farm-based, real-time monitoring system for norovirus;
– Identifying the source, dispersal mechanisms and persistence of norovirus in Baynes Sound, the leading oyster producing region in B.C.

“B.C. oyster farmers work hard so people can enjoy our seafood locally and around the world, and multi-agency partnerships and research will help that continue,” said B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham. “Provincial investments in re-seeding efforts, and research to ensure harvested seafood can be enjoyed safely are key elements to supporting stability in the province’s oyster aquaculture sector.”

“This investment is an important step forward in ensuring that BC oysters are safe for human consumption and that oyster farming in BC is better protected,” said Dr. Pascal Spothelfer, President and CEO of Genome BC. “BC’s seafood industry and government agencies are direct partners on this project so implementation will be swift and significant.”

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The projects are funded through Genome BC’s Sector Innovation and GeneSolve programs along with funding from the Ministry of Agriculture’s B.C. Oyster Recovery Fund, announced in 2018, which specifically targeted bringing industry and academia together to find solutions for sector challenges. UPCOAST-N and UPCOAST-V were also funded through Genome Canada’s Regional Priorities Partnership Program (RP3).

Quick Facts:

Shellfish farming in British Columbia generates about $62 million dollars in wholesale value annually and employs up to 800 people in direct, full-time jobs primarily in rural areas.
Currently, the only outbreak control measure is shutting down oyster farms resulting in millions of lost dollars and employment for hundreds.
Oyster sales in BC represent about half of the shellfish aquaculture industry, approximately $30 million.

Source: Genome Canada

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