UCI introduces the EPO test

ARTICLE SUMMARY:

  • The CIRC ignores the role of the UCI in the development and introduction of the EPO test and downplays the importance of the test.

 

 

FULL ARTICLE:

The CIRC writes about the EPO test on pages 118-119 – a mere one page devoted to one of the most important advances in the fight against doping.

In the chapter on the health tests on this website, I give a short history of the search for an EPO test, how the UCI was involved in developing that test and how the health tests were introduced as an interim solution to counteract the absence of an EPO test (the introduction of which had been announced many times, but in vain).

The CIRC was careful to avoid making reference to this story as it would shine a spotlight on the UCI’s determination to win the fight against the use of EPO.

Similarly, the CIRC ignores the role and the efforts of the UCI in the validation and introduction of the urinary EPO test in 2000-2001.

The CIRC acknowledges that the UCI introduced the test and took “a certain degree” of legal risk in doing so, but, for the rest, the CIRC does its best to downplay the importance of the introduction of the urinary EPO test and indeed of the test itself. The CIRC devotes umpteen pages to the EPO problem, but pays scant attention to all of the efforts made to find an EPO test.

I will therefore provide some information about the research projects the UCI was involved in, especially those that were conducted after the introduction of the health tests in January 1997.

 

UCI’s participation in EPO research

In August 1997, the UCI provided financial support to the laboratory of Cologne for its research project on the detection of EPO. On 11 February 1998, the laboratory announced that it had found an indirect detection method, however this was not confirmed.

On 20 October 1997, the UCI brought together all of the heads of anti-doping laboratories to discuss the problem of detecting EPO. This was the first time that an International Federation had taken such an initiative.

On 2 February 1998, Professor Bargelini from Italy announced that he had found a detection method. In June 1999, Professor Dine of France also announced that he had found a detection method. The experts appointed by the court in the Festina trial claimed that they had a method. Alas, all of them were wrong.

On 2 December 1998, the University of Lausanne proposed to the UCI to instigate a study on the effects of EPO on sports performance and the blood parameters (which is in fact the principle on which the blood passport is based).

The study of the effects of EPO on the blood parameters might help to identify the use of EPO, or at least enable the UCI to refine the parameters of the health monitoring that it was developing and which came into effect on 1 January 1999. These parameters, in turn, were used to target riders for doping control, an aspect that is ignored by the CIRC.

Stretched to its financial limits, the UCI asked for a contribution from the IOC. The IOC made a contribution of 80,000 Swiss Francs, in addition to the UCI’s contribution of 331,000 Swiss Francs.

This project did not result in an EPO detection method, but it proved very useful in the research carried out by the Australian Institute of Sport that developed the blood component of the combined blood-urine detection method that was eventually applied at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. (In the end, the method did not prove robust enough, so the results were not used.)

Riders participating in the 1999 Tour Down Under provided blood samples for a different research project carried out by the Australian Institute of Sports, using the UCI’s method of sampling for the health tests introduced in 1997.

The UCI made also a financial contribution of 10,000 Australian Dollars towards this project.

The Institute’s report with the title “Indices of accelerated erythropoiesis during a 6-day stage race in male road cyclists” of February 2000 ends as follows: “Finally we would like to thank Hein Verbruggen and Dr. Leon Schattenberg with the UCI who have ensured that the sport of cycling lead the way in regards to detecting illegal drugs that artificially stimulate erythropoiesis”.

I brought this report as well as this quote to the attention of the CIRC. Naturally, the CIRC completely ignored it. After all, the CIRC only provides a podium to (anonymous) sources that spout negative accusations that are not substantiated and are not investigated. Once again, this demonstrates how incomplete and how biased the CIRC’s report really is.

 

The validation and introduction of the EPO test

In a letter dated 9 May 2000, the French Minister of Sports led the UCI to believe that there was a detection method for EPO that could be applied at the upcoming Tour de France. The UCI organised a meeting between the Minister, the Paris laboratory, the Tour organizer ASO, representatives of teams and of riders, in Geneva on 25 May 2000. At the meeting, the Director of LNDD, Dr Jacques de Ceaurriz, and his colleague Françoise Lasne, explained that their method still needed to be validated.

The UCI then decided to have the method validated by IOC-appointed experts at its own cost and risks. This process took until March 2001 – and the UCI implemented the very first urinary EPO test at the Tour of Flanders on 8 April 2001.

So the UCI was heavily engaged in research projects and conducted the validation process of the urinary EPO test between February 1996 and April 2001, a period of more than four years. Note the complete absence of any involvement from WADA in the introduction of the EPO test. In the event, it would take WADA another two years to validate the urinary EPO test, in June 2003.

All the information that I have summarized here, as well as in the chapter on the health tests, plus all of the underlying evidence was available to the CIRC, who decided to ignore it and to qualify all efforts of the UCI in the search for an EPO detection method as mere “containment”.

 

The CIRC’s sour comments

The CIRC not only ignores the efforts that the UCI made for the introduction of this long-awaited test against the most powerful doping substance – the real ‘game changer’, as the CIRC calls it on page 32 of its report – but it also downplays these efforts as well as the enormous benefits that resulted from this test by griping about alleged imperfections in the testing.

The CIRC writes that the EPO test was cumbersome (technician dependent and time consuming), expensive and not very robust. As far as I know, it still remains cumbersome and expensive today, be it that in a later stage additional techniques have been developed to avoid false positives, which made the test even more cumbersome and technician dependent. This is also why it is not possible, for both financial and logistic reasons, to test every urine sample for EPO.

Why does the CIRC not also describe the blood passport in the same way, which is many, many times more technician dependent, cumbersome and expensive? Could it be because it is WADA that claims the ‘ownership’ of the passport?

A further misleading statement is the following: “The lack of robustness posed a problem from a legal point of view, which is evidenced, inter alia, by the Olga Yegerova and Bo Hamburger cases.”

Sure, the test was (and still is) complicated and there were doubts and discussion about the reliability of the test. It was inevitable that the test would come under fire if an athlete tested positive. It also turned out that the Paris and Lausanne laboratories, which in 2001 were the only two labs that had the necessary know-how to run the test, applied different positivity criteria.

However, it is not clear why the CIRC makes this reference to the Yegerova and Hamburger cases, if it is not to suggest that the UCI acted without thinking.

Olga Yegerova’s A-sample tested positive for EPO with the sole urinary method at the Paris Golden League meeting on 6 July 2001. So no blood sample had been taken. She was provisionally suspended, but her suspension was lifted and the case dropped because the IAAF did not recognize the sole urinary test. The IAAF press release on 4 September 2001 reads:

Testing for EPO was first conducted at a major Championships last year at the Olympics where athletes were asked to provide samples of both blood and urine.  The Sydney protocol involved a screening of the blood sample to provide an indication of whether EPO was present in the athlete’s body, and this was then confirmed by a follow up urine analysis. 

At this time, it remains the only means of testing for EPO that has been scientifically validated. Since Sydney, further extensive scientific research has been undertaken to finalise a single urine only test.  The research is believed to be complete, but the IAAF has been informed that the test still awaits final validation.  The IAAF believes that, in the circumstances, the test conducted by the French authorities on Ms Yegorova in Paris should not have been carried out.

This does not mean however that there had been no problem: apparently it turned out that the B-sample was “unreadable”. Two possible causes have been put forward by the Paris lab that had analysed the sample: an operational error by a technician in the laboratory, or manipulation of the B-sample by the expert that attended the B-sample analysis on behalf of Yegerova. There is plenty of information about this in the French media at the time, but the CIRC chose to refer only to one article by BBC News (footnote 119) which is quite vague and confusing.

These circumstances – and certainly an operational error – can occur with any test, be it that the likelihood of an operational error increases as the test’s complexity increases, which is certainly the case with the EPO test.

So there is no basis at all for the CIRC’s allegation that the test was not robust. Nor was there any legal problem: as there was no B-test result there was no valid test result. It was as simple as that.

Similarly, there was no problem with the test as such in the Hamburger case. The test was recognized as valid by CAS, just as in the Meier case (both cases were heard by the same panel, one the day before the other, and the decisions in both cases were delivered on the same day, 28 January 2002). Hamburger was acquitted because the lab had conducted two B-analyses, one of which was just below the threshold that the lab had set for the A-sample.   This had nothing to do with any deficiency of the test, which was recognized as valid. No technical problem was identified.

The EPO test was approved “by the legal community”, as the CIRC writes, in the same way as both the Hamburger and Meier cases, and not only in the Meier case, as the CIRC suggests on page 119. The CAS award in both cases was rendered the same day, 28 January 2002.

The CIRC goes on to state that an EPO test had little deterrent effect without a structure that collects the right sample from the right athlete at the right time. That applies, however, for any and all prohibited substances and methods, not just for EPO. And the CIRC does not show that UCI’s structure was deficient, in particular given the resources and know-how at that time. Many riders tested positive for EPO as a result of UCI tests, both in and out of competition.

With this statement, the CIRC completely contradicts its earlier statement on page 47 that, following the introduction of the EPO test, the riders turned to intravenous administration of EPO (instead of subcutaneous), blood doping and micro-dosing. Riders wouldn’t have turned to other methods if the EPO test had no deterrent effect.

The CIRC also notes that not all samples were tested for EPO and that the EPO test was not used for all races. This is correct, but it is impossible to do otherwise, both for financial and logistic reasons. And that goes for all sports and all anti-doping organizations, including WADA.

This statement also contradicts the CIRC’s plea for “the right sample”: EPO tests were conducted primarily on riders that showed atypical blood values in UCI’s health tests and medical monitoring. It was targeted testing, but of course the CIRC will not credit the UCI for that.

In fact, it is simply not possible either to test every athlete in every competition. But apparently it is possible according to the CIRC’s report.

The mealy-mouthed criticism of the new EPO test by the CIRC is obviously aimed at downplaying any credit for the UCI in the development and implementation of the EPO test. At the same time, however, the CIRC is shielding WADA: in my report to the CIRC (on this website) I had asked the CIRC to investigate why it took two more years for WADA to validate the EPO test. It is question number 3: Why did it take until June 2003 for the WADA to validate the sole urinary test after the UCI had validated and introduced this test two years before in April 2001 which the CAS accepted as a valid proof of doping in January 2002? Can this delay of two years be justified on scientific grounds solely?  The CIRC makes a great many comments about the devastating effect of EPO on sports since 1990, which must have made the CIRC aware of the urgent need for an EPO test. Of course, my question is completely ignored.

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