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Scientists fired from Winnipeg lab over security fears rightly under probe: minister

OTTAWA — It's "extremely appropriate" that two scientists who lost their jobs due to dealings with China remain under investigation, Health Minister Mark Holland said Wednesday.

The National Microbiology Laboratory researchers were fired in early 2021 after their security clearances were revoked over questions about their loyalty and the potential for coercion by China.

Records tabled in Parliament late last month say the scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, played down their collaborations with Chinese government agencies.

The RCMP said Wednesday a national security investigation into the matter, which begain in May 2019, remains underway.

The Mounties started the probe following a referral from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported Wednesday the two scientists have been using pseudonyms as they build a new life in China.

Holland said he was "deeply disturbed" by the scientists' behaviour.

"They're under an investigation, and rightfully so," he said.

"That investigation is ongoing. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the nature of that investigation. But I would say that it's extremely appropriate that the investigations are occurring."

The documents presented to Parliament show the Canadian Security Intelligence Service concluded that Qiu repeatedly lied about the extent of her work with institutions of the Chinese government.

The records also say she refused to admit involvement in various Chinese programs even when evidence was presented to her.

CSIS found that Qiu provided at least two employees of Chinese government institutions access to the microbiology laboratory, and consistently said she had very limited knowledge of these institutions' mandates, "despite an abundance of evidence that she was actually working with or for them."

Upon release of the records, the Public Health Agency said it had taken steps to bolster research security in response to the episode.

The microbiology laboratory has a "renewed, proactive security posture" that has reinforced the physical security of the building, the health agency said.

"Screening measures are strictly enforced for all staff and external visitors, including the requirement for visitors to be accompanied at all times and without exception."

The Public Health Agency needs to provide a fuller explanation of exactly what it has done, said Wesley Wark, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Wark, a national security expert who has closely followed the issue, said the agency must be able to demonstrate concretely how it has changed the lab's practices with regard to security training, data protection and information technology.

"From my perspective, there's two things that we need to know," Wark said.

"One is the details of the changes. The other is, was there a review conducted in order to make those changes, to make sure that they were going to be adequate?"

A spokesman for the Public Health Agency did not have immediate answers Wednesday to questions about the security changes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024.

The Canadian Press