PHAC President Refuses to Explain to MPs Why Scientists Were Fired From Winnipeg Lab

PHAC President Refuses to Explain to MPs Why Scientists Were Fired From Winnipeg Lab
The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in a file photo. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)
Andrew Chen

The head of the Public Health Agency of Canada refused to explain to a House of Commons committee the specific reasons why a prominent Chinese Canadian scientist and her husband were fired by the country’s top laboratory after a police investigation.

PHAC president Iain Stewart was grilled by the Committee on Canada-China Relations on March 22 about the termination of the two biologists from their employment at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, Canada’s highest-security Level 4 laboratory, back in 2019.

Xiangguo Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng, and a number of Qiu’s students were escorted from the NML building and stripped of their security clearances on July 5, 2019, CBC News reported later that month. The report also said the PHAC would only confirm that it referred an “administrative matter” involving a possible “policy breach” to the RCMP on May 24 that year.

“We cannot disclose additional information, nor comment further, for reasons of confidentiality,” added Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and PHAC, in the email.

Stewart took the same approach during the committee hearing, resolutely refusing to provide details of PHAC’s investigation and the reason for Qiu and Cheng’s removal from the NML, despite opposition MPs’ repeated attempts to get a definitive answer.

“They are no longer with the agency, we undertook investigation, and I am not really at liberty to talk more about that,” Stewart said.

Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron said Stewart’s continued refusal to provide answers meant he could be found in contempt of Parliament. He said the fact that the two scientists were ousted after an investigation leads to speculation that “everything wasn’t done according to the rules.”

“What did they do wrong?” he asked Stewart, who reiterated, “I’m not at liberty to discuss it further.”

Bergeron also said Stewart’s stance raises concerns that sensitive information “might have been transmitted to the Chinese authorities.”

Stewart told the committee that he understands his refusal to answer questions has caused “stress and unhappiness.“ However, ”That’s the legal advice I was provided in preparation for this session,” he said.

Stewart said he would seek legal counsel on whether he could provide the committee with details of the investigation. The committee gave him until 2 p.m. on March 26 to provide answers.

Virus Shipments to China

In June 2020, CBC News obtained documents through an Access to Information request revealing that on March 31, 2019, four months before Qiu and her husband were escorted from the NML, she had shipped live samples of the deadly Ebola virus and other viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Qiu made at least five visits to China between 2017 and 2018, including one trip to train Chinese scientists and technicians at a newly certified Level 4 lab.

In addition to raising questions about Qiu’s shipment to China and her termination of employment at the NML, committee MPs also expressed concerns about Beijing’s cybersecurity threats to Canada.

NML head Dr. Guillaume Poliquin told the committee that the shipment was done in accordance with Canadian law, including the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, and the Canadian Biosafety Standard.

Poliquin also said Canada has never transferred coronaviruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.