Winnipeg lab scandal deepens as colleague of disgraced scientists creates Ebola-like virus in China

Yan Feihu, a Chinese graduate student, worked under the supervision of fired scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng at the top-secret Winnipeg lab while being affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Science, an arm of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Winnipeg lab scandal deepens as colleague of disgraced scientists creates Ebola-like virus in China
The Canadian Press / John Woods
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Further controversy has emerged at Canada’s National Microbiology Lab (NML) after a military-linked grad student followed in the footsteps of disgraced Chinese scientists.

Yan Feihu, a Chinese graduate student, worked under the supervision of scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng at the biosafety level-4 facility in Winnipeg.

Dr. Qiu had 44 collaborative projects with Chinese scientists while tenured, some of which included military researchers.

The grad student previously authored publications with Dr. Qiu as early as 2016 and worked at the NML while being affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Science, an arm of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). 

He later authored scientific research in China on replicating the Ebola virus in lower biosafety facilities abroad.

A slew of Chinese scientists created a new recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus by using Ebola virus glycoprotein, with the stated purpose of researching Ebola countermeasures in a biosafety level-2 (BSL-2) facility. Lethal viruses like Ebola can only be studied under biosafety level-4 conditions.

NML operates under biosafety level-4 conditions, whereas the study operated out of Chinese biosafety level-2 facilities.

The virus killed all test subjects, a slew of healthy hamsters, who developed multi-organ failure, eye inflammation (i.e. uveitis), and “severe systemic diseases resembling symptoms of human [Ebola] patients.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), confirmed these pathogens were not used in the Chinese experiment. The work performed “does not use live virus but rather genetic information in order to accomplish the experiment,” said Agency spokesperson Mark Johnson.

He told Epoch Times that the Winnipeg lab, which the agency oversees, used similar procedures to study pathogens and their safe handling when they generated the Ervebo Ebola vaccine.

Dr. Richard H. Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, raised public concerns that Chinese scientists studied bat coronavirus under level-2 conditions in China, giving rise to concerns from biosafety experts of a potential lab leak.

“I suspect the risk for accidental release is greater” in facilities not designated a biosafety level-4 laboratory, James LeDuc, a former director at the Galveston National Laboratory, penned in a May 2021 letter urging for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Dr. Ebright said the use of different glycoproteins determines which species becomes infected by the Ebola virus, the potency of that infection, and the success of the immune response.

The recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus is “unlikely” to threaten mankind, he said. Further verification is needed to assess the safety risks of the Ebola-like virus.

Last month, the Public Health Agency told the Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations that Dr. Qiu and Cheng kept their security clearance following multiple security breaches and concerns regarding their collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Meanwhile, the couple maintained undisclosed communication with the People’s Liberation Army. Evidence showed Dr. Qiu held an account at a Beijing bank.

NML managers knew of the collaboration with foreign scientists and acknowledged that relations soured by the end of their tenure. 

Declassified CSIS records show Dr. Qiu had lied about her Chinese talent program applications, which paid foreign scientists under the table for military application of Western civilian research.

WIV hired her as the only “Chinese” scientist with access to a level-4 facility outside of China.

On March 31, 2019, Dr. Qiu shipped 15 strains of Nipah and Ebola viruses to WIV to facilitate Ebola research on the nature of infection and developing antibodies. The agency approved their shipment.

Dr. Qiu said her project remained a secret to her Canadian management as the Wuhan biosafety level-4 lab did not have the viral strains in their possession at the time they formalized a request to the NML, according to declassified documents.

It states she discussed shipping the viral strains in July 2018 without a formal agreement in place. “No one owns the IP [Intellectual Property],” said Dr. Qiu

At the time, government records show Dr. Qiu led a WIV “animal infection” project from June 2019 to May 2021 to create synthetic bat filovirus strains.

“This was to assess cross-species infection and pathogenic risks of bat filoviruses for future vaccine development purposes, which suggests that gain-of-function (GOF) studies were possibly to take place,” said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in a June 2020 document. GOF is a controversial research technique that enhances the pathogenic potential of an organism to make it more infectious or deadly.

Intelligence officials learned that a senior technician tried to steal classified materials from the NML in 2018, while employed at the Public Health Agency. 

From October 2017 to January 2018, Dr. Qiu “collaborated on the application with” that individual, who worked with her on bat filoviruses in 2019, according to CSIS records.

Additional evidence showed Cheng gave encrypted USB keys with passwords to “restricted visitors” at the lab. Among the visitors included several Chinese students, including People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers who were caught removing vials.

In one 2018 incident, Cheng received a package from China marked “kitchen utensils” that contained lab proteins that could be used to recreate viruses.

Both scientists lost their security clearance in July 2019, but it took two years for the pair to receive their walking papers in January 2021. The Public Health Agency never disclosed the reason.

Dr. Qiu is currently working on antibodies for Nipah and Ebola at WIV and both are reportedly working abroad under different aliases.

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