Special committee begins probe into firing of infectious disease scientists at 'top-secret' lab

Four MPs from different political parties and judges commenced their probe into the firing of the two Winnipeg-based scientists on Thursday.

Special committee begins probe into firing of infectious disease scientists at 'top-secret' lab
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An all-party committee in the House of Commons will begin probing the dismissal of two infectious disease scientists and determine whether they provided confidential intelligence to China.

According to previous media reports, Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, shipped samples of the Ebola and Henipah viruses in March 2019 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China — including plasma DNA molecules which could recreate vaccines or viruses.

In July 2019, security escorted the pair from the lab alongside graduates and postgraduates from China studying at the University of Manitoba. How those students got security clearances to enter the facility remains to be seen.

The Globe and Mail reported that both scientists collaborated with Chinese military researchers to study and conduct experiments on deadly pathogens such as those causing Ebola disease, Lassa fever, and Rift Valley fever. 

Qiu collaborated specifically on Ebola research with Major-General Chen Wei, the Chinese military's top epidemiologist and virologist, with dozens of scientific publications with Chinese scientists under her belt.

After an RCMP investigation and CSIS intervention, the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg revoked the security clearance of both scientists. 

The special committee, consisting of four MPs from different political parties and judges, commenced their probe into the firing of the two scientists on Thursday.

Liberal Iqra Khalid, Conservative John Williamson, New Democrat Heather McPherson and René Villemure from the Bloc Québécois will see all secret documents involving the virus transfer.

A spokesperson for Government House Leader Mark Holland said the committee would have unfettered access to all national security documents related to the firing of Qiu and Cheng. "Work is underway, and documents are available to the committee members. They work independently," Marc Kennedy emailed the Globe and Mail.

This paints a stark contrast from when the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) failed to disclose said documents two years ago at the request of House Speaker Anthony Rota.

In June 2021, Rota hauled PHAC head Iain Stewart to Parliament after Opposition parties passed a motion to reprimand him over his repeated refusal to disclose national security documents on the contentious dismissal. The Health Canada head became the first civil servant since 1913 to be summoned to the Commons.

Stewart ultimately refused to turn over more than 250 pages of unredacted documents, which his lawyer wrote to Rota was out of compliance with the law and not the defiance of Parliament. 

Under the Canada Evidence Act, Stewart's lawyer claimed his client could not divulge "sensitive information or potentially injurious information" and, as required by law, had notified the attorney general of his appearance before the committee.

Stewart claimed the firings had no connection to COVID-19, nor did the virus transfer to the Wuhan lab.

The federal government eventually took Rota to court for attempting to gain access to the classified documents.

The attorney general applied to Federal Court, naming Rota as a respondent. He requested the documents remain under wraps to protect Canada's national security. The application disputed the unredacted material as "information which, if disclosed, would be injurious to international relations, national defence, or national security." 

Rota openly challenged the court application, claiming it usurped the Commons' ability to procure any documents they requested, but abandoned his pursuit when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped the writ for the 2021 general election.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said his party preferred a Parliament committee, but the federal government refused. Parliament would have unfettered access to additional documents without court involvement, if granted.

In May, Ottawa named three former judges — former Supreme Court Justices Ian Binnie and Marshall Rothstein and Federal Court Justice Eleanor Dawson — to oversee the special committee as arbiters. Their role is to adjudicate any dispute about what information to disclose publicly.

Kennedy said the MPs on the special committee would sign an oath of secrecy and could only view the classified documents at a secure facility. MPs will present their findings to the Commons at an unspecified point in the future.

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  • By Sheila Gunn Reid

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