The Veerpalu case: WADA wind sniffers

Avo-Rein Tereping


In Soviet times, as traffic militia halted a vehicle to check documents or what not, they tried to stick their head in the window and do some sniffing – in the hope of smelling alcohol. Occasionally, they were crowned with success, and if the driver pleaded guilty, punishment followed. Such militiamen were, back then, called wind sniffers. Alas: human nose is no precision instrument. It often erred and further expert analysis would prove the people clean. The conclusion being: no use of alcohol detected.

As convicting people in drunk driving is, however, a weighty matter, today we enjoy strict rules for determining states of intoxication, with definite limits set. No one will be convicted on account of smell, colour of countenance, gleam in the eyes etc.

For instance: class A alcoholometer’s error of measurement may not exceed 3-5 per cent. Measuring instruments are also required to be verified in other fields resulting in people judged guilty of innocent, with possible fines charged or health statements issued. Thus, pursuant to Metrology Act, metrological check-up of instruments is required in medicine, related to diagnosis and treatment prescribed. This is the way it is, all around the world.

As, sadly, revealed by the Andrus Veerpalu case, WADA rather looks like an organisation of wind sniffers – at least, as judged by the growth hormone test used upon Mr Veerpalu. Yet, the consequences of a sportsman’s conviction are often even more serious that a driver taken off the road. Therefore, requirements at least as strict ought to apply to validity of tests.

As we remember, doubts arose towards the growth hormone test methodology back when it was revealed that two test results, from the same source, differed by 33 per cent. For anyone even vaguely acquainted with measurements, such vast difference would bring doubts in adequacy of instruments used. That’s exactly what Dr Jüri Laasik concluded, then. And the fight was on.

Now, however, it appears that with this test, things are even worse than might have been guessed, two years ago. Descriptions of the battle by lawyer Ilmar-Erik Aavakivi and biostatistician Krista Fischer make one to seriously doubt the WADA methods. I will not here repeat all the points, rather advising all to listen to the radio Kuku last week’s Recess with Postimees (Vahetund Postimehega).

In addition to serious errors at verification of the test’s validity, I was amazed by a counter-argument presented by WADA to check-up on the test reliability. Namely: they claimed that conducting a correct experiment, with growth hormone injected into a test-person and its content thereafter measured by the aforementioned test, would be unethical. Yet, these very kinds of medicine tests are being conducted with hundreds of medical preparations and methods of treatment, as only experiments will reveal sure facts on therapeutic effect or harmful side effects.

Measurements have long ceased to be mere wind sniffing. It’s become an activity based on science. As WADA didn’t desire, though demanded by our group, to present the court with full information on development of the growth hormone test method and its validation, naturally doubts arise towards their other methods as well. In science, hiding test methodology and primary data leads to distrust towards test results, and towards those conducting the tests.

If a test’s validity is unproven, the measurements are null and void. And talk about «him maybe still having used something» should stop.

The Author is member of Tallinn Medical Research Ethics Committee