OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee is ordering the Public Health Agency of Canada to turn over all documents related to the firing of two scientists from Canada's highest-security laboratory and the earlier transfer of viruses to China's Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations has given the public health agency 20 calendar days to turn over the documents in an unredacted form.
After that, committee members will meet behind closed doors with the parliamentary law clerk to determine what can be made public without compromising national security or revealing the details of an ongoing RCMP investigation.
Iain Stewart, the president of the federal agency, has refused to explain to the committee why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were fired in January.
That was 18 months after they were escorted from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, which is Canada's highest-security laboratory and is designed to deal safely with deadly contagious germs such as Ebola.
It was described at the time as a possible policy breach and administrative matter.
Four months earlier, Qiu had been responsible for a shipment of shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China's Wuhan Institute of Virology. The public health agency has previously said the escorted exit of the pair was not connected to that issue.
"That's all we know: policy breaches, but we are still being told that the export of viruses aligned with protocols, and we still don't know exactly why the scientists were expelled," Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said at the committee Wednesday.
The five Liberal MPs on the committee voted against ordering PHAC to turn over the documents.
Liberal MP Robert Oliphant said there is a "wave of requests for documents" coming in many committees.
"That appears in my mind to be of a partisan nature," he said.
He argued the committee should give PHAC 30 days to translate and turn over the documents, but the six opposition MPs on the committee voted for a shorter timeline.
Stewart sent the committee a letter last week saying that the Privacy Act does not allow him to share "employment or labour-relations matters concerning public servants."
In his letter, Stewart said the pair "have had no access to PHAC facilities, infrastructure or assets" since July 2019.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press