Health Minister and His Department Differ on Whether There’s Ongoing China Collaboration at Winnipeg Lab

Health Minister and His Department Differ on Whether There’s Ongoing China Collaboration at Winnipeg Lab
Federal Health Minister Mark Holland listens to a question from a reporter during a news conference, in Ottawa on Dec. 12, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
Noé Chartier

After substantive details were disclosed about security breaches involving Chinese collaborators at Canada’s top biosafety lab, comments by the federal health minister and his department indicate they are not on the same page regarding ongoing research work with China.

When Health Minister Mark Holland was asked on Feb. 29 whether collaboration between China and the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg had stopped, he said the “short answer is yes.”

He then qualified his response: “I won’t say there’s no collaboration, but the nature of that deliberate collaboration is totally different as it’s become apparent that there are efforts for them [China] to impact our scientific community,” he said.

When reporters asked him to clarify why he initially said “yes,” Mr. Holland said he “walked it back a little bit.”

“I want to be careful that there are many things that are happening with the WHO and different lower-level interactions that might be occurring,” he said, apparently referring to collaboration with Chinese entities through the World Health Organization.

On the same day Mr. Holland made those comments, a Health Canada spokesperson told The Epoch Times that there are no ongoing research projects with China.

“The National Microbiology Laboratory is not currently engaged in any bilateral research collaboration with the People’s Republic of China [PRC],” said Mark Johnson.

Mr. Johnson said that any new collaboration with any country would be assessed on a case-by-case basis and vetted along security and scientific considerations.

The Epoch Times sought clarification from Mr. Johnson on March 1 regarding the discrepancy but did not receive a response by publication time.

‘Clearly Failed’

The comments from the minister and his department came after the Liberal government on Feb. 28 tabled over 600 pages of documents in Parliament shedding light on security breaches at the NML in Winnipeg.

Scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng lost their security clearances and were escorted out of the lab by the RCMP in 2019, and eventually fired in 2021.

The government kept the details under wraps for three years, after having failed to comply with four orders from the House of Commons to disclose the documents and having taken the Speaker of the House to court to avoid tabling the documents.

Mr. Johnson said that Ms. Qiu and Mr. Cheng, a married couple, had “clearly failed to disclose important information to their employer, including their work with China.” This and their breach of security protocols led to the loss of security clearances and dismissal, he added.

The documents show that Ms. Qiu had significant ties to Chinese military scientists and sent material out of the Winnipeg lab without authorization, including to China.

A Canadian Service Intelligence Service (CSIS) security assessment of Ms. Qiu says she had “close and clandestine relationships with a variety of entities of the PRC,” that she had a “complete lack of candour” about those relationships, and that she showed “reckless judgement regarding decisions that could have impacted public safety and the interests of Canada.”

In light of the revelations, Conservatives have asked the government what steps it will take to prevent future breaches.

Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic, told the House of Commons on Feb. 29 that the CSIS assessments “make it clear the PRC is and was actively recruiting top Canadian scientists to plunder Canada’s research and intellectual property.”

Mr. Chong asked whether collaboration between the NML and PRC entities will be blocked.

Mr. Holland didn’t answer directly, saying that an attack on Canada’s national security “represents an attack on democracy.”

“I share [Mr. Chong’s] outrage that China or any country would attempt to interfere in our process,” he said.

Mr. Holland added that the Public Health Agency of Canada, which oversees the NML, had hired “two Canadian citizens who are eminent and well-known” but who “lied” and were discovered and fired by the agency.

Mr. Chong also asked if the minister would take back comments he made when announcing the tabling of the documents on Feb. 28. Mr. Holland had said that no sensitive information had left the NML.

“The documents say otherwise. Does the minister stand by those comments?” asked Mr. Chong.

Mr. Holland replied that “there is absolutely no evidence of the thing that the member opposite is suggesting.”

A CSIS assessment says that Ms. Qiu has “intentionally transferred scientific knowledge and materials to China in order to benefit the PRC Government.”


Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said on Feb. 29 that he believes collaboration with Chinese entities should be halted.

“I don’t think this is the kind of collaboration we want,” he said during a press conference in Ottawa.

“We should be collaborating with like-minded democracies that we can trust, not those that want to attack our interests.”

Mr. Poilievre also accused the government of a “coverup” and decried the security breaches at the NML, given that the fired scientists had links to a Chinese military bioterrorism expert.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described Mr. Poilievre’s comments as “conspiracy theories” and “political attacks.” He said on Feb. 29 that his government has taken the issue seriously and that he’s tasked his new national security and intelligence adviser, Nathalie Drouin, who took on the position Jan. 27, to look into the lab issue and put forward recommendations.
The Liberals on Jan. 16 announced a new policy on sensitive research that bars the federal government from funding researchers with links to institutions of concerns, 85 of which are based in China.