WADA offers limited amnesty for meldonium positives

Eduard Vorganov (Katusha)

Eduard Vorganov (Katusha) (Image credit: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

The World Anti-Doping Agency took an unprecedented step to recommend that anti-doping authorities overturn bans for some of the 172 athletes who tested positive for the heart drug meldonium since it was added to the prohibited substances list on January 1 this year. But the Katusha team told Cyclingnews it is unsure of whether its rider Eduard Vorganov will be cleared because the amnesty depends on the amount of the drug detected in the athlete's sample.

Meldonium, a drug manufactured in Latvia, had been monitored by WADA and then added to the banned list, saying there was "evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance".

Vorganov was the only cyclists to test positive for the drug. His sample was taken out-of-competition on January 14, 2016. Because of Luca Paolini's positive for cocaine from the 2015 Tour de France, the entire team could have faced a suspension under the UCI anti-doping rules, but the UCI Disciplinary Commission decided a ban would be 'disproportionate'.

WADA came under fire as the meldonium positives, mostly from Russian athletes, began to pile up, but faced immense pressure after tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for it earlier this year.

In a statement this week, WADA admitted that there is only limited data on how quickly the drug leaves the human body. While the studies are ongoing, they found that low levels of the drug could show up in an athlete's urine for "a few months", meaning some positives could have been the result of the athlete using the drug before it was banned.

The question now is which athletes took the drug before it was banned and were still clearing it from their systems, and which athletes continued to take it in violation of the WADA code. Only the ongoing excretion studies will provide definitive guidelines for this decision.

Based on preliminary data, WADA stated that if the level of the drug was less than 1 microgram per millilitre (1 ug/ml), the result is "compatible with an intake prior to January 2016", and the responsible anti-doping agency could clear the athlete.

They could also proceed with anti-doping rule violations if the athlete admitted to taking the drug after January 1, or there is other evidence they have done so, or if their levels were over 15 ug/ml, or between 1 and 15 ug/ml and the sample was taken on or after March 1, 2016.

Bans could be lifted for athletes who tested positive with concentrations of meldonium in their urine between 1 and 15 ug/ml from samples taken between January 1 and February 29.

One major caveat is that the studies on how the drug is excreted are still ongoing, and once they reach a definitive conclusion the athletes who have had their cases stayed could still face a suspension, depending on the outcome of the studies.

The athletes can choose to continue to serve provisional suspensions until the studies are complete, or go back to competing. But if they keep competing, they will face cancellation of their results and prizes should the studies find them in violation of anti-doping rules.

"There is no doubt as to the status of meldonium as a prohibited substance," said WADA President, Sir Craig Reedie. "There is equally no doubt that the principle of strict liability under the Code; as well as, the well established process for results management and adjudication prevail.

"Since meldonium was prohibited on 1 January of this year, there have been 172 positive samples for the substance, for athletes across numerous countries and sports," Reedie said. "Concurrently, there has been a call by stakeholders for further clarification and guidance. WADA recognizes this need -- that meldonium is a particular substance, which has created an unprecedented situation and therefore warranted additional guidance for the anti-doping community."

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Laura Weislo
Managing Editor

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's beat is anti-doping, UCI governance and data analysis.