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Ouster of researchers from National Microbiology Lab still a mystery

One of Canada’s top scientists says he’s surprised and dismayed an “administrative matter” resulted in the sudden eviction of a prominent Chinese Canadian virologist, her biologist husband, and her students from Canada’s only level-4 lab in Winnipeg and prompted an RCMP investigation.

“I think it’s unfortunate. It’s all speculation. We have no idea what the investigation is about. The fact the RCMP is involved to me doesn’t mean anything at all, because they just need somebody external to their investigation,” said Gary Kobinger, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and director of the Research Centre on Infectious Diseases at Laval University in Quebec.

Sources say Xiangguo Qiu, biologist Keding Cheng, and an unknown number of Qiu’s students were escorted from the National Microbiology Lab (NML) and their security access revoked on July 5.

Qiu is head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies Section in the Special Pathogens Program.

Kobinger said it’s procedure to escort someone from the building if they don’t have a security badge that allows them access.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) will only confirm it referred an “administrative matter” involving a possible “policy breach” to the RCMP on May 24.

Neither PHAC nor the RCMP are providing further details, citing privacy concerns.

Meanwhile, the University of Manitoba has suspended the appointments of both Qiu and Cheng and reassigned Qiu’s students, pending the RCMP investigation.

Qiu, Cheng and the students all originally come from China.

There has been speculation the case involves the improper transfer of intellectual property or biological materials to China. The NML is Canada’s only level-4 facility and one of only a few in North America equipped to handle the world’s deadliest diseases, including Ebola.

However, Kobinger does not believe Qiu was involved in economic espionage.

“The Chinese, do you see the science they’ve been generating in the past 5 years?” he asked, adding most of the research is published publicly.

“The Chinese – they have so many scientists, it’s unreal. What we can do in six months, they can do in a month. There is nothing, nothing, nothing that I can see from my side that they would benefit from us in terms of knowledge, in terms of re-agents,” Kobinger said. “They have better access to pathogens, everything else, the vaccine, therapies, everything.”

He believes it may be a case of paperwork filled out incorrectly or the breach of a government policy created by bureaucrats who don’t understand how science works.

Or, he adds, it could be a question of mandate because the role of the lab has always been unclear – some say it should just do diagnostics while others believe it should do research.

Until he left the NML three years ago, Qui worked with Kobinger to develop ZMapp, a treatment for Ebola that was successfully used during the outbreak in West Africa in 2014-16. (The World Health Organization declared the latest Ebola outbreak a global health emergency last week.)

Kobinger and Qiu have been recognized for their work, including a Governor General’s Innovation Award in 2018.

Kobinger said he reached out to Qiu by email after hearing the news and she thanked him for his support.

He wishes PHAC could provide a little more information to settle the speculation going on internationally.

“[Qiu’s] body of work is solid. I don’t think it’s going to damage it. But her reputation, I think so, yeah,” Kobinger said in a phone interview.

“If I was in her place, I don’t know if I would ever go back. I would not,” Kobinger said. “So she can take the phone and find a lab anywhere in the world, tomorrow. People may not realize, when you are a top scientist, it’s not hard to move.”

Neither Qiu nor Cheng could be reached for comment.

All of this comes at a time when relations between Canada and China are strained.

Last December, Canada arrested Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S warrant. In retaliation, China has arrested two Canadian men on espionage charges, sentenced a third to death for drug offenses, and shut down imports of Canadian canola and meat.

Kobinger hopes Qiu and her team are not caught unfairly in the middle of a diplomatic dispute.

“Everyone benefits from working together, that’s the nature of science. Again, I think there is clearly other issues that are completely unrelated to scientific research,” he said.

This case has similarities to investigations in the U.S., where authorities have been investigating and warning about the danger of scientists and academics with Chinese connections sharing intellectual property and trade secrets with Beijing. Several have been forced from their positions at American universities and institutions.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service and NATO have also warned of state-sponsored espionage. 

In 2014, Canada claimed China was responsible for a cyber attack on the National Research Council.

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