Chinese scientist under investigation trained staff at Level 4 lab in China — Is This a Spy Case? Why Won’t Ottawa Tell Us

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Chinese  scientist under investigation trained staff at Level 4 lab in China — Is This a Spy Case? Why Won’t Ottawa Tell Us? 

Still no answers in probe of government scientists expelled from National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg

Xiangguo Qiu, her biologist husband and her students have not returned to work at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, after being escorted out in July. RCMP are still investigating what was described by Public Health Agency of Canada as a possible ‘policy breach.’ (CBC)

This story was published on Oct. 3, 2019.

A Canadian government scientist at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg made at least five trips to China in 2017-18, including one to train scientists and technicians at China’s newly certified Level 4 lab, which does research with the most deadly pathogens, according to travel documents obtained by CBC News.

Xiangguo Qiu — who was escorted out of the Winnipeg lab in July amid an RCMP investigation into what’s being described by Public Health Agency of Canada as a possible “policy breach” — was invited to go to the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences twice a year for two years, for up to two weeks each time.

“This will be third-party funded, and therefore no cost to [the Public Health Agency of Canada],” say the documents, obtained through access to information requests. The identity of the third-party was redacted.

During a Sept. 19-30, 2017, trip, she also met with collaborators in Beijing, the documents say, but their names have also been blacked out.

Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng and her students from China were removed on July 5 from Canada’s only Level 4 lab — one equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases, such as Ebola. Security access for the couple and the Chinese students was revoked, sources who work at the lab previously told CBC News.

People working inside the lab told CBC News this week they have heard the couple may return to work soon.

Several of them, who asked not to be identified for fears of retribution, say there have always been questions about Qiu’s trips to China — and what information and technology she was sharing with researchers there.

“It’s not right that she’s a Canadian government employee providing details of top-secret work and know-how to set up a high-containment lab for a foreign nation,” one employee said.

The staff member claims RCMP officers have not yet interviewed key people at the lab, because senior management has not made them accessible to police or allowed staff to contact them with relevant information.

Qiu accepts an award from Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, left, at a ceremony at Rideau Hall in 2018, for being part of the team at the National Microbiology Lab that created the Ebola drug ZMapp. (CBC)

A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, which runs the lab, referred questions to the RCMP.

“We encourage anyone who has information and wishes to speak with the RCMP on this matter to attend RCMP HQ in Winnipeg at 1091 Portage Avenue,” RCMP said in an emailed statement.

“In order to maintain the integrity of the investigative process, we have no further comment at this time.”

A spokesperson confirms the police investigation is ongoing. Both agencies have said repeatedly there is no threat to public safety.

Researchers must balance caution, collaboration

Meanwhile, there has been no change in Qiu and Cheng’s status at the University of Manitoba, which had severed ties with both of them and reassigned her students in July.

Qiu is a medical doctor and virologist who helped develop ZMapp — a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014-2016 and saw an outbreak in Congo earlier this year.

She is a medical doctor from Tianjin, China, who came to Canada for graduate studies in 1996. She is still affiliated with the university there and has brought in many students over the years to help with her work.

During her trips, Qiu also visited the Chinese Academy of Science, Tsinghua University, the Chinese Medical Academy of Science and Bejing Institute of Biotechnology.

She spoke at several conferences, including some organized by the World Health Organization, the Chinese Society of Virology and International Symposium on Emerging Viral Disease.

Jia Wang, deputy director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is not concerned with Xiangguo Qiu’s trips to China, saying collaboration is common in international research. (China Institute)

Collaboration and information-sharing is common and expected in academia, says Jia Wang, deputy director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“In an increasingly globalized world, in an increasingly globalized field of research, we do see more exchanges and more visits incoming and outgoing,” she said.

But researchers working with international partners also “need to understand the security parameters and the requirements to follow the procedures, and to safeguard intellectual property and also safeguard their research,” she said.

There’s a balance they need to strike between being cautious and open-minded to collaboration, though, Wang said.

“In the end, we are hoping that this research exchange will ultimately benefit Canada and benefit our people here.”

Qiu and Cheng have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Relations between Canada and China have been strained since the detention last year of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. arrest warrant.