China says its scientific cooperation with Canada should not be politicized, in response to queries over the firing of two scientists from Canada’s only Level 4 facility, a case that has sparked an RCMP inquiry, requests for details in Parliament, and concerns about Chinese espionage.
Few people know why Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her scientist husband, Keding Cheng, were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Lab (NML) and stripped of their security clearance two years ago. They were sacked in January of last year. Two national security specialists, on the other hand, consider that the scientists’ situation raises the potential of Chinese espionage.
“It looks that Chinese agents entered one of the most coveted national security elements when it comes to biosecurity and biodefence,” said Christian Leuprecht, a security specialist and professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University. On Wednesday, a representative for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was questioned if Qiu and Cheng were participating in espionage on behalf of the Chinese government at a news conference in Beijing.
The pair traded information and virus samples from the Canadian facility with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to public records. At a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, a representative from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked if Qiu and Cheng were involved in espionage on behalf of the Chinese government.
According to public records, the couple transferred information and viral samples from the Canadian facility with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While Leuprecht has no inside knowledge of the couple’s case, he believes the known facts do not add up. Charges would have been filed if the two had committed a simple national security violation, he said.
Despite the lack of charges, the RCMP is still investigating Qiu and Cheng. Cpl. Julie Courchaine, a spokesman for the RCMP, would only say that the federal serious and organized crime branch of the Manitoba RCMP is leading the investigation. “We do not publicly comment [on], confirm or deny the specifics of our own investigations,” Kiera Lawson, a spokesperson for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said in response to questions.
Qiu, a medical doctor from Tianjin, China, came to Canada in 1996 to pursue graduate studies. She began her career at the University of Manitoba, but moved to the national lab in 2006 as a research scientist, eventually rising to become the head of the NML’s special pathogens program’s Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies unit.
She also worked on the development of ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, which killed over 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. Qiu, Cheng, and the Chinese students she was working with were asked to leave the lab in July 2019, just months after she shipped a shipment of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies Ebola as a “category A” bioterrorism agent because of its ease of dissemination and high mortality rate. Because Henipah/Nipah can be developed for mass distribution, they are categorized as “Category C.”