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SII Focus 18th November 2016

Mexican laboratory faces suspension over false Pliego positive

To compete at the Olympic Games is the ultimate dream of any serious athlete. When talking about the Olympics, athletes often mention their childhood ambition to win a gold medal, or simply being at the pinnacle of their sporting and athletic performance. It is, for many athletes, the most important competition of their entire career and – depending on the sport in which they compete – one they may only have one or two shots at.

Imagine if that childhood dream were taken away by an error that is no fault of your own. Mexican sabre fencer, Paola Pliego, won the bronze medal at the 2015 Pan American Fencing Championships and up until early August, had every expectation that she would be part of the Mexican team for Rio 2016. However, just days before the start of the Olympics, the Mexican anti-doping laboratory reported that the 22-year-old had returned an adverse analytical finding (AAF).

As outlined in the statement below, Pliego received a communication from the international fencing federation (FIE) that she had tested positive and was suspended as of 28 July, just days before the start of the Olympic Games. The FIE said that it had received notification that a sample collected by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on 24 June had resulted in an AAF for modafinil, a cognition-enhancing agent that features as a banned stimulant on WADA’s Prohibited List.

‘I have never consciously consumed this substance’, argued Pliego in the statement above. ‘I learned of its existence through the FIE statement’. On 4 November, after the Olympics, Pliego announced that she had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Paul Greene, who represented Pliego alongside Ricardo de Buen, said that Pliego had taken Advil, a pain relief medication, and the Mexican laboratory (Laboratorio Nacional de Prevencion y Control del Dopaje – LNPCD) had simply misinterpreted the results of the test. “They just false read the report and didn’t understand what they were looking for in terms of a modafinil positive”, said Greene.

The Sports Integrity Initiative understands that the FIE had drafted in Dr. Hans Geyer, of the WADA-accredited doping control laboratory in Cologne, to review the Mexican laboratory’s handling of Pliego’s sample. Dr. Geyer conducted a second test on Pliego’s sample at his laboratory in Cologne and concluded that there was, in fact, no modafinil in the sample. Pliego’s Olympic dreams had been dashed by a false positive.

There had also been questions regarding the chain of custody for Pliego’s sample. “There was no refrigeration of the sample for days”, said Greene. “It came up from Panama and was dropped at a third party service at the Mexican border and sat there for six days. There was no record of where the sample was for six days. That is grounds alone that the case should have been dismissed. The lab should have never done the test. In situations such as this where the chain of custody has been breached, the laboratory has discretion. If you read the standards, there is no mandatory rejection, but any lab with integrity would not even test the sample with a six day gap in the chain of custody. During the opening of the B sample, we also found some facts that were going to be presented to the Panel during the hearing.”

WADA’s International Standards

The World Anti-Doping Code is supported by five international standards that are designed to harmonise the anti-doping process, no matter where or when it is conducted. Within the standards are extensive instructions regarding the chain of custody of athlete samples.

The International Standard for Testing and Investigations (ISTI) specifically deals with the transportation of samples from a doping control station to the testing laboratory. ‘When the Sample is taken from the Doping Control Station, each transfer of custody of the Sample from one person to another, e.g. from the DCO [Doping Control Officer] to the courier, or from the DCO to the laboratory, should be documented, up until the Sample arrives at its intended destination’, reads a comment to Article 6.3.5 of the ISTI.

This includes transportation to the laboratory. ‘Samples shall always be transported to the laboratory that will be analyzing the Samples using the Sample Collection Authority’s authorised transport method, as soon as practicable after the completion of the Sample Collection Session’, reads Article 9.3.2. ‘Samples shall be transported in a manner which minimizes the potential for Sample degradation due to factors such as time delays and extreme temperature variations’. Article 9.3.5 continues: ‘If a Sample’s integrity or identity may have been compromised during transport, the Sample Collection Authority shall check the Chain of Custody, and the Testing Authority shall consider whether the Samples should be voided’.

WADA’s International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) also requires the laboratory testing the sample to check the chain of custody. ISL Article 5.2.2.3 requires the laboratory to ‘observe and document conditions that exist at the time of receipt that may adversely impact the integrity of a Sample’. One of the conditions it lists which may cause the integrity of a sample to be compromised is ‘Sample transport conditions are not consistent with preserving the integrity of the Sample for anti-doping analysis’.

In cases where there is a question over the integrity of the sample, ISL Article 5.2.2.4 requires the laboratory to ‘notify and seek instructions from the Testing Authority regarding rejection or testing of Samples for which irregularities are noted’. It is unclear, at this stage, whether the Mexican laboratory conducted any of these verifications prior to reporting the AAF or whether the alleged breaches of the chain of custody had any impact on the results of the analysis. However, whether it did or not could be irrelevant – it could simply be the case that the laboratory issued a false positive.

WADA investigation

Something clearly went wrong between the time of sample collection and the time the Mexican laboratory reported the erroneous results. That both the FIE and the Mexican laboratory did not respond to inquiries is perhaps understandable, given that WADA is investigating the situation. “We are aware of this athlete’s case and are currently following it up with further inquiries”, said a spokesperson.

If Pliego’s case does turn out to be a false positive, then unless the Mexican LNPCD Laboratory is able to provide WADA with a satisfactory explanation, the consequences could be severe. ‘The WADA Executive Committee shall revoke the accreditation of any Laboratory accredited under these provisions if it determines that Revocation is necessary to ensure the full reliability and accuracy of Analytical Testing and the accurate reporting of analytical test results’, reads Article 4.4.13.2.2 of the ISL. ‘Revocation of accreditation may be based on, but not limited to, the following considerations in the EQAS [External Quality Assessment Scheme] analysis and/or routine operation of a Laboratory: Reporting of False Adverse Analytical Findings’.

‘The Laboratory is to provide WADA with a satisfactory root cause analysis report including the reason(s) for the error within five calendar days (unless informed otherwise by WADA)’, continues Article 4.4.13.2.2. ‘Supporting documentation shall be provided such as all quality control data from the batch of routine Samples that included the false Adverse Analtyical Finding sample (particularly if the error is deemed to be technical/scientific). WADA shall review the Laboratory’s explanation promptly.’

The Sports Integrity Initiative understands that Pliego is currently considering a lawsuit for recovery of damages. Obviously, if WADA suspends the Mexican laboratory, that would help Pliego in any compensation claim. But what financial value could be put on taking away a young athlete’s opportunity to compete in the Olympics? Only time will tell…

• The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) suspended the Mexican laboratory shortly after this article was published. You can view WADA’s media release by clicking here.

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