‘Wake-up call for Canada’: Security experts say case of 2 fired scientists could point to espionage

Couple shared information from Chinese institute, virus samples from high security lab

China says its scientific cooperation with Canada should not be politicised, responding to questions from two scientists fired from Canada’s only Level 4 laboratory – a case that led to the RCMP investigation, demanding details in parliament and Concerns about Chinese espionage.

Little is known why Dr. Jiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband, Keiding Cheng, were pulled out of the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg two years ago and stripped of their security clearance. He was officially fired last January.

However, two national security experts believe the scientists’ case raises the possibility of Chinese espionage.

“It appears that what you might call a Chinese agent is one of the most prized national security elements for biosecurity and biodefense,” said Professor Christian Luprecht, a security expert at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University.

At a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry was asked whether Qiu and Cheng were involved in espionage on behalf of the Chinese government.

It is a matter of record that the couple shared information and virus samples from a Canadian lab with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Responding to questions from Granthshala News, Wang Wenbin said, “I have no idea what you mentioned. There is some scientific cooperation between China and Canada that is perfectly normal and should not be politicised.”

Level 4 Virology Facility is a laboratory equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. This makes the Winnipeg lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling pathogens that require the highest level of prevention, such as Ebola..

While Luprecht has no insider information about the couple’s case, he said that the known facts of the story simply don’t add up. If the pair had directly violated national security, he said, the charges would have been leveled.

Despite the lack of allegations, Qiu and Cheng are being investigated by the RCMP.

RCMP spokesperson C.P.L. Julie Courchan would only say that the federal Serious and Organized Crime Division of the Manitoba RCMP is at the forefront of the ongoing investigation.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) spokeswoman Keira Lawson also declined to answer questions, saying: “We do not comment publicly. [on], or confirm or deny the specifics of our own investigation.”

Qiu is a medical doctor from Tianjin, China who came to Canada in 1996 for graduate studies. He started out at the University of Manitoba, but began working at the National Laboratory in 2006 as a research scientist, and worked his way up to the lead. Vaccine development and antiviral therapy section in NML’s Specialized Pathogens Program.

She was also part of the team that helped develop ZMapp to treat the deadly Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014-2016.

But in July 2019, just months after sending a shipment of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, Qiu, Cheng and the Chinese students she was working with were asked to leave the lab.

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Ebola is considered a “Category A” bioterrorism agent by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because it can spread easily and result in high mortality. Henipa/Nipa are classified as “Category C” because they can be engineered for large-scale diffusion.

At the time, sources told Granthshala News that several computers were confiscated, a lab log book was missing and that Qiu’s regular trips to China had been suspended.

asking for answers

For months, the Special Parliamentary Committee on Canada-China Relations has been demanding answers from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) about the shipment of the virus that caused the scientists to be fired and whether they are Canadian citizens. .

PHAC has declined, citing privacy laws.

PHAC has stated that the case involved a potential policy violation, an administrative matter and that the public was never at risk. Recently, however, officials have said it is a matter of national security.

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Last week, parliament passed a Conservative resolution calling for the PHAC to turn over hundreds of pages of uncensored documents.

The documents have now been shared with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), which is made up of MPs who are appointed by the prime minister and granted national security clearance.

look | Security clearance snatched from committee probing the case of sacked microbiologist

Executive director Lisa-Marie Inman declined to answer questions about the group’s work, saying the committee only speaks through its report. Those reports are then vetted by the Prime Minister before they are made public.

Leuprecht believes the documents could reveal larger security issues at the lab – and highlight the role of Canadian collaborators in the investigation.

“It would also explain why you didn’t accuse them, because once you accuse them, eventually you have to prosecute people. And when you prosecute people, you have to use the evidence you have.” So the government is deliberately trying to keep this kind of relatively below the radar as much as possible,” he said.

Pointing to concerns about Chinese espionage in recent annual reports, he said, “it needs a wake-up call to Canada about how much the Chinese are able to infiltrate Western institutions for their political, economic and national security benefits.” Got aggressive.” csis and NSICOP.

cooperation with china

In newly released documents, PHAC explained that a secret level of clearance is required to work in NML and that anyone working with human pathogens and toxins has access to the Human Pathogens and Toxic Substances Act (HPTA). ) must be taken out.

Since Qiu had access to a Level 4 lab, this indicates that he had both clearances.

In 2017 and 2018, Qiu made at least five trips to China, including one to train scientists and technicians at China’s new certified Level 4 laboratory in Wuhan province.

According to documents obtained by Granthshala News through access-to-information requests, the visits were funded by a third party whose identity was modified.

In 2017–2018, Qiu wrote or co-wrote Almost 50 scientific papers. Although he has not been allowed to join the NML since mid-2019, he has 32 other publications to his name during that time, including six in 2021. Most involve the Ebola or Marburg virus, as well as Chinese scientists and funding.

Qiu also brought Chinese undergraduate and graduate students to work in his laboratory.

The Globe and Mail recently reported that one of those scientists was Fehu Yan of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

Sources inside the lab tell Granthshala News that they saw a Chinese military scientist at NML. Qiu has co-authored at least Eight publications with Yano.

PHAC spokesman Eric Morissette declined to answer questions about the Yan’s work in Winnipeg, saying “the person was not an employee of the laboratory”.

Luprecht and others are critical of the lack of oversight that allowed researchers like Yan inside the laboratory.

“China has a very active, very aggressive and extremely dangerous bioweapons program,” Luprecht said. “Therefore all the research that is generated here can be easily redeployed by the Chinese authorities to advance nefarious causes.”

With China’s track record of intellectual property espionage, another expert says it is a concern that Chinese research institutions were helping to fund some of the work done in collaboration with NML scientists.

“Why didn’t our security procedures recognize that it was not a good idea, that these individuals, given their backgrounds, should not be granted security clearance?” Scott Newark, a former Alberta Crown prosecutor, executive officer for the Canadian Police Association and policy adviser to the Ontario and federal governments.

whereabouts unknown

Qiu and Cheng were last seen in public at the memorial service of the former head of the National Laboratory, Dr. Frank Plummer, who died in February 2020.

Despite visiting their two Winnipeg homes, they were never reached for comment. Neighbors say they have not seen the couple at their primary residence for months. The second house is a rental property. Former coworkers say Qiu even bragged about owning a mansion in China.

A recent visit to their property near the beach community of Gimli, Man., found a vacant lot with no huts built on it.

Newark said his estate – which is valued at about $1.7 million – raised questions about whether he had income outside of federal government salaries, totaling $250,000 for both of them.

“It’s a full profile … a big red flag,” he said.

Newark also noted that the Trudeau government’s efforts to keep the details of the case a secret parallel a joint RCMP-CSIS intelligence report in the late 1990s called Project Sidewinder.

It was found that the Chinese government and Asian criminal gangs were working together in drug trafficking, nuclear espionage and other criminal activities that threatened Canada’s security.

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However, the report was shelved amid allegations of political pressure not to protest…

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