New Brunswick

Lawyers of N.B. doctor blamed for outbreak call for criminal inquiry of handling of case

The lawyer for the doctor singled out as the cause of the Campbellton COVID-19 outbreak is accusing the province, health authority, premier and RCMP of breach of trust, obstruction of justice and public mischief.

Dr. Robert Ngola had 3 negative COVID-19 tests after original positive, lawyers say.

Dr. Robert Jean Ngola, 50, worked as a family doctor and ER physician in Campbellton, N.B., for seven years. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

The lawyers for the doctor singled out as the cause of the Campbellton COVID-19 outbreak are calling for a public and criminal inquiry into how their client was treated.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Andrea Anderson-Mason on Sept. 8, lawyers Joël Étienne and Christian Michaud are calling for an independent investigation led by the Anti-Corruption Unit of Quebec, and a criminal inquiry into how public bodies handled the case of his client, Dr. Jean Robert Ngola.

The lawyers also claim to have COVID-19 test results they say could exonerate him.

Ngola, a Congolese-Canadian doctor, was identified as "patient zero" in an outbreak in northern New Brunswick that resulted in more than 40 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. Without naming him, Premier Blaine Higgs called Ngola an "irresponsible" health professional who failed to isolate after returning from a personal trip to Quebec. 

While the RCMP said they will no longer be investigating Ngola for criminal wrongdoing, he's still facing a charge under the provincial Emergency Measures Act, and is expected to make an appearance in Campbellton court on Oct. 26. No criminal charges have been laid.

Joël Étienne is representing Ngola. He says the province rushed to judgment when it pinned an outbreak on a health-care worker, later identified as the Congolese-Canadian doctor. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

In the letter, Etienne said negative COVID-19 test results, one of which was delayed by 86 days, "reasonably" show Ngola may not have been infected with coronavirus at all. The results also support the idea that if he did have the virus, he contracted it in New Brunswick and not Quebec, the letter said.

Withholding these results could be seen as obstruction of justice; "falsely accusing" Ngola is seen as mischief; and co-ordinating the investigation and announcements with an election call is breach of trust on behalf of the premier, the letter alleges.

None of these allegations have been tested in court, and it's not clear if any charges will stem from this letter. Anderson-Mason did not respond to a request for comment.

The RCMP, the Justice Department and the Health Department all declined to comment, saying the case is still before the courts.

An investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate and Radio-Canada revealed new contact tracing information that cast doubt on whether Ngola was "patient zero." The investigation also pointed to dozens of other people in the community who could have been that patient.

Étienne named Higgs, the Department of Health, Vitalité Health Network and the RCMP in his criminal investigation and public inquiry call.

Multiple negative tests, delayed results, lost blood sample

The letter says Ngola was tested for coronavirus five times in total between May 26 and June 8. 

One of the tests, a blood sample taken on June 8, was lost with no explanation, Etienne said.

Of the remaining four, only one test came back positive — the nasal swab taken on May 26, the letter says. A blood test performed the next day came back negative, but Étienne said his client did not get that result until 86 days after the test was administered.

Two nasal swabs performed on June 5 and 8 also came back negative, Étienne said.

Ngola received the results from the first May 26 test in less than 24 hours, the letter said, but he had to wait until Aug. 21 to get the remaining results.

"Each time Dr. Ngola asked for copies of his tests results, he was told that the province was 'validating its methods,'" Étienne said in the letter. 

"The explanation is absurd," Étienne said. "Thousand of New Brunswickers were not put on hold for as much as 86 days to receive their COVID-19 test results."

Étienne said according to an expert consulted by the defence, a positive nasal test followed by three negative tests "could reasonably indicate a false positive." 

Dalhousie University epidemiologist Dr. Karina Top previously told The Fifth Estate a false negative is much more likely than a false positive. 

Étienne said as of June 5, when the third negative test was found, the government, health authorities, the premier's office and the RCMP "would have known this information."

Étienne does not give proof of this assertion.

Étienne also said an expert told the defence team even if Ngola was positive for coronavirus, the timeline of these tests shows he would have been infected in New Brunswick, not Quebec

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca

With files from Radio-Canada

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