Scientists let go from National Microbiology Laboratory amid RCMP investigation

·4 min read
Xiangguo Qiu, her biologist husband and her students were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in July 2019. The RCMP have been investigating a possible 'policy breach' reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Xiangguo Qiu, her biologist husband and her students were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in July 2019. The RCMP have been investigating a possible 'policy breach' reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

(CBC - image credit)

Two Canadian government scientists escorted from the National Microbiology Laboratory amidst an RCMP investigation and internal review have been let go from the Public Health Agency of Canada, CBC News has learned.

"The two scientists are no longer employed by the Public Health Agency of Canada as of Jan. 20, 2021," Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and PHAC, confirmed in an email late Friday.

"We cannot disclose additional information, nor comment further, for reasons of confidentiality."

Sources say members of the lab's special pathogens unit were called to a meeting on Thursday and told that Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, will not be returning to work. They were not given an explanation.

Cheng, Qiu and her students from China were removed from Canada's only Level 4 lab in July 2019 over what was described as a possible "policy breach" and administrative matter.

Governor General's Innovation Awards
Governor General's Innovation Awards

The Public Health Agency of Canada had asked the RCMP in Manitoba to get involved several months earlier.

A Level 4 virology facility is a lab equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. That makes the Winnipeg lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling pathogens requiring the highest level of containment, such as Ebola.

As recently as December, the RCMP said the investigation was ongoing but that there is no threat to public safety.

Sources say the couple have been off work with pay, living in Winnipeg, but PHAC has never confirmed that, citing confidentiality.

Developed Ebola treatment

Qiu is a medical doctor and virologist 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.

She helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016.

She was head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies Section in the Special Pathogens Program at the Winnipeg-based lab.

Her husband is a biologist who has published research papers on HIV infections, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), E. coli infections and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

John Woods/The Canadian Press
John Woods/The Canadian Press

Last year, documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request found that Qiu was responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology four months before she and her husband were escorted from the NML.

At the time, PHAC said the shipment and Qiu's eviction from the lab were not connected.

"The administrative investigation is not related to the shipment of virus samples to China," Morrissette wrote in an email last June.

"In response to a request from the Wuhan Institute of Virology for viral samples of Ebola and Henipah viruses, the Public Health Agency of Canada sent samples for the purpose of scientific research in 2019."

No connection to COVID-19

The RCMP and PHAC have consistently denied any connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus shipments. There is no evidence linking the shipment to the spread of the coronavirus. Ebola is a filovirus and Henipah is a paramyxovirus — no coronavirus samples were sent.

Qiu also 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 in October 2019.

Despite RCMP and PHAC denial of connections, there have been conspiracy theories stating otherwise. One medical expert says we need more transparency on the issue.

Canadians have the right to know more, said Amir Attaran, a professor in the faculty of law and School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.

"This adds to the appearance that NML staff acted improperly, and perhaps illegally, when they exported Canada's collection of Ebola virus to a lab in Wuhan, China, totally without any scientific justification that NML cares to offer," Attaran said.

"It is a deeply suspicious transaction that deserves powerful, but not politicized, parliamentary scrutiny when it comes to an extremely lethal virus."

The former head of the NML, Matthew Gilmour, left last July to work for the U.K.-based Quadram Institute Bioscience.

His medical adviser, Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, took over until a permanent replacement can be found.