Winnipeg scientists with ties to China kept security clearance while under investigation

Managers at the National Microbiology Laboratory testified that Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband, Keding Cheng, were investigated starting in August 2018 and deemed suspicious in a March 2019 report. They were suspended with pay in July 2019 and terminated in January 2021.

Winnipeg scientists with ties to China kept security clearance while under investigation
The Canadian Press / John Woods and Handout Cleared
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Two top Canadian scientists with ties to China maintained their security clearance for months while under investigation by law enforcement.

It took nearly three years for the Public Health Agency to dismiss Xiangguo Qiu, then-head of vaccine research at the Agency’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, and her biologist husband Keding Cheng after concerns emerged regarding their collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China. 

Both scientists would lose their security clearance in July 2019 and wait two years to receive their walking papers in January 2021. The agency never disclosed the reason.

“I find that astounding,” said Conservative MP Michael Cooper. “In March of 2019, the Agency had a fact-finding report that indicated there had been multiple [security] breaches.”

In 2020, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) said both scientists posed “a very serious and credible danger to the Government of Canada … due to the potential for theft of dangerous materials attractive to terrorist and foreign entities.”

On Friday, the Public Health Agency told the Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations that Dr. Qiu and Cheng kept their NML security clearance because “these were allegations.” 

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

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. At the time, NML managers were unaware that WIV researched the Nipah virus to redesign biological entities and systems.

Dr. Qiu, who is currently working on antibodies for Nipah and Ebola at WIV, had 44 collaborative projects with Chinese scientists at NML. Some included military researchers.

Declassified CSIS records show the Institute hired her as the only “Chinese” scientist with access to a Level 4 lab outside of China.

On Friday, NML managers testified the couple came under investigation in August 2018, and were deemed suspicious in a March 2019 fact-finding report. They were suspended with pay in July 2019 and finally fired in January 2021.

“Between the time red flags were first raised about Dr. Qiu and Dr. Cheng in the fall of 2018 through to the time they were marched out of the Lab on July 5, 2019, were any restrictions during that nearly 11-month window placed upon them in terms of their access to the Lab?” asked Cooper. “There was no evidence of their affiliation with external actors,” replied Heather Jeffrey, president of the Public Health Agency.

“How were there not red flags at that point?” asked Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. “These were allegations,” replied Guillaume Poliquin, vice president of the National Microbiology Laboratory. “Further investigation was ongoing.”

MPs considered their reaction to the security breach as lackadaisical.

“When someone is under investigation with serious allegations that have potential national security consequences, due process of course is justified but in the interests of our national security surely we should be looking at curtailing individual authority,” said Erskine-Smith.

On April 15, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc expressed grave concerns regarding the transfer of live virus strains. 

“I’m really concerned about the March 2019 incident where [Qiu and Cheng] were implicated in a shipment of live Ebola and Hanipah [Nipah] viruses on a commercial Air Canada flight," he said.

Initially, it remained a secret to Dr. Qiu’s managers as WIV requested the virus transfers from the Winnipeg lab. Laboratory management told MPs in 2021 that they would follow the proper protocols. 

It is clear that “elements from a Chinese-sponsored recruitment program were involved” at the Winnipeg lab, LeBlanc told the China Committee. 

He acknowledged that China recruited foreign talent “to improve its military and intelligence capabilities, as well as the economic competitiveness, all at the expense of Canada’s national interest.”

During his testimony, the minister declined to address concerns regarding the delay in removing Dr. Qiu and Dr. Cheng from the Winnipeg lab.

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