Scientist fired from Winnipeg disease lab intentionally worked to benefit China: CSIS report

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, seen here in an undated screengrab from a CBC segment, at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg. (CBC - image credit)
Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, seen here in an undated screengrab from a CBC segment, at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg. (CBC - image credit)

One of the scientists who was fired from Canada's top infectious disease laboratory "intentionally" shared scientific information with China — potentially putting people's health in jeopardy — says an assessment by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

The intelligence assessment was released late Wednesday afternoon by the federal government, along with hundreds of other documents about the mysterious dismissal of Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng.

The scientists and their students worked in the Level 4 virology facility at the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab (NML), which is equipped to deal with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases.

The couple were marched out of the facility in July 2019 and were stripped of their security clearances. Their dismissals were announced in January 2021, triggering concerns about Chinese espionage and leading to heated demands in Parliament for more information.

According to the documents, CSIS conducted multiple security screenings of the couple.

The documents show the service had a more rosy initial assessment of Qiu's motivation, noting in spring of 2020 that she could be "susceptible ... based on the belief in the power of science to help humanity."

But as the investigation went deeper, CSIS's concerns deepened. A few months later, CSIS wrote Qiu was using the level 4 lab in Canada "as a base to assist China to improve its capability to fight highly-pathogenic pathogens" and "achieved brilliant results."

Qiu provided Beijing "with the Ebola genetic sequence, which opened a door of convenience for China," wrote CSIS.

CSIS accused Qiu of being associated with multiple "talent programs" administered and funded by various Chinese entities.

Those programs are set up to "boost China's national technological capabilities and may pose a serious threat to research institutions, including government research facilities, by incentivizing economic espionage and theft of intellectual property," said CSIS in the report.

In early January 2021, the head of CSIS's security screening program issued a dire warning about Qiu's trustworthiness and her "close and clandestine relationships with a variety of entities of the PRC, which is a known security threat to Canada."

The service also called out her "reckless judgement regarding decisions that could have impacted public safety and the interests of Canada."

Trevor Lyons/CBC
Trevor Lyons/CBC

"The service assesses that Ms. Qiu developed deep, cooperative relationships with a variety of People's Republic of China (PRC) institutions and has intentionally transferred scientific knowledge and materials to China in order to benefit the PRC Government, and herself, without regard for the implications to her employer or to Canada's interests," CSIS wrote.

"Because of her extensive knowledge of the harmful effects of dangerous pathogens on human health, Ms. Qiu should have been aware of the possibility that her efforts to engage clandestinely with the PRC in these research areas could harm Canadian interests or international security."

Qiu sat for interviews with CSIS. The spy agency said she "repeatedly lied" during those interviews when confronted about her association with China.

Reinstating Qiu could put Canadians' health in jeopardy: CSIS

The CSIS document said Qiu was "reckless" when it came to the proper scientific protocols on the transfer of pathogens "and in working with institutions whose goals have potentially lethal military applications that are manifestly not in the interests of Canada or its citizens."

The report also noted she let two employees of a PRC institution "whose work is not aligned with Canadian interests" into the National Microbiology Lab.

In an October 2020 letter, released as part of Wednesday's document dump, Qiu wrote to a security screening employee that it was only during her interviews that she learned words like "NATO", "spy" and "espionage."

"I certainly owed my success to Canada, the most peaceful and multicultural country in the world, and I really felt proud as a Canadian," she wrote.

"Thinking back, what happened in the past were purely due to the lacking of proper training, the misunderstanding and ignorance of the policies of [the Public Health Agency of Canada] that I should have spent more time to learn and ask. I sincerely hope you understand my situation."

Qiu "consistently asserted that she had very limited knowledge of these institutions' mandates, despite an abundance of evidence that she was actually working with or for them," said the report.

"The service therefore assesses that because of adverse features of character — dishonesty, reckless judgement and lack of respect for accepted rules and norms — Ms. Qiu has acted, may act and may be induced to act in a way that constitutes a threat to the security of Canada."

The intelligence agency said that if Qiu were reinstated at the lab, or allowed to retain a security clearance to handle sensitive biological agents, "Canada's national security and the health of individuals may be put into jeopardy.

Health Minister Mark Holland said China's influence on Canada's scientific community "was not known to the extent it was today."

"These were eminent scientists whose research and work was well known. They were leaders in their field, some of the brightest scientists that were known," he said.

WATCH | Fired scientists were 'eminent' leaders in their field, health minister says

"I think there was a nascent understanding of the extent to which foreign actors in the most direct sense — China we're talking in this instance, in other instances Russia and other foreign entities, foreign governments — were attempting to influence Canada."

Holland said there was "lax adherence" to security protocols in this case, which he called "unacceptable."

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called the case "a massive national security failure by Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government."

"He cannot be trusted to keep our people and our country safe," he said in a media statement.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said screening measures are strictly enforced at the National Microbiology Lab for all staff and external visitors.