University severs ties with two researchers who were escorted out of National Microbiology Lab

The University of Manitoba has cut ties with two researchers who were escorted out the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg earlier this month, until an RCMP investigation is complete.

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu is a medical doctor and virologist who helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus.

She was also an adjunct professor in the university's department of medical microbiology — until Monday.

Her non-salaried position "has ended and all students she supervised have been reassigned, pending the RCMP investigation," university spokesperson John Danakas said in an email.

The non-salaried appointment of her husband, Keding Cheng, has also ended as the police investigation continues, Danakas said. He is a biologist who has also done a lot of work on Ebola.   

Danakas was unavailable to indicate the number of students affected, saying that's the only information that can be shared while the police are involved. 

Qiu could not be reached for comment. 

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According to sources inside the NML, Qiu, Cheng and an unknown number of her students from China were removed from the lab on July 5. The level-4 virology facility — the only one in Canada — is equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. 

Security access for the couple and the Chinese students was revoked.

Sources say this comes several months after IT specialists for the NML entered Qiu's office after hours and replaced her computer. Her regular trips to China also started being denied.

At meetings on July 8, NML staff were told the researchers are on leave for an unknown period of time. They were told not to communicate with them.

Manitoba RCMP started an investigation after the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) contacted them on May 24.

The RCMP and PHAC have said repeatedly there is no threat to public safety.

PHAC is describing the situation as a possible "policy breach" and is taking steps to "resolve it expeditiously," said Eric Morrissette, the health agency's chief of media relations.

He has declined further comment, citing privacy reasons. Officials won't say what kind of policy breach would be serious enough to warrant a referral to the RCMP.

Qiu received her medical degree from Hebei Medical University in 1985 and 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 a news conference on Monday, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the Chinese Embassy in Canada has not received any notification that Chinese citizens are involved.

"If indeed there are Chinese citizens involved, our embassy and consulates will provide consular assistance and earnestly protect their legitimate rights and interests according to law," he said, according to an English transcript on the Chinese foreign ministry's website.

It was not immediately clear if Qui is a Canadian citizen, permanent resident or a Chinese national.

CBC News

The situation also came up during a news conference with the secretary-general of NATO. 

Jens Stoltenberg, who toured CFB Petawawa on Monday and met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said at a news conference he couldn't comment on this specific case, but appeared to suggest the possibility of espionage.

"What I can say in general is that we have seen increased efforts by the nations to spy on NATO allies in different ways," he said . 

"This is partly about industrial espionage and it affects our military forces and military intelligence so this is something that we take very seriously." 

There is no confirmation espionage is involved in this case.