Canadian lab's shipment of Ebola, Henipah viruses to China raises questions
Shipment may be part of RCMP investigation into researchers evicted from National Microbiology Lab
Scientists at the National Microbiology Lab sent live Ebola and Henipah viruses to Beijing on an Air Canada flight March 31, and while the Public Health Agency of Canada says all federal policies were followed, there are questions about whether that shipment is part of an ongoing RCMP investigation.
Ebola and Henipah are Level 4 pathogens, meaning they're some of the deadliest viruses in the world. They must be contained in a lab with the highest level of biosafety control, such as the one in Winnipeg.
Two months after that shipment, on May 24, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) referred an "administrative matter" to RCMP that resulted in the removal of two Chinese research scientists — Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng — and several international students on July 5.
Both agencies have said repeatedly that public safety has not been at risk.
PHAC will not confirm if the March 31 shipment is part of the RCMP investigation.
Several sources, who have asked to remain anonymous because they fear for their jobs, say the pathogens may have been shipped to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in a way that circumvented the lab's operating procedures, and without a document protecting Canada's intellectual property rights.
Researchers working at the National Microbiology Lab on cutting-edge, high-containment research are not allowed to send anything to other countries or labs without the intellectual property office negotiating and having a material transfer agreement in place, in case the material sent leads to a notable discovery.
A PHAC spokesperson did not confirm if this shipment included such an agreement.
However, Eric Morrissette said it's "routine" for the lab to share samples of pathogens and toxins with partners in other countries to advance scientific work worldwide.
The transfers follow strict protocols, including requirements under the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act (HPTA), the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, the Canadian Biosafety Standard and the lab's standard operating procedures, Morrisette added.
"All transfers of Risk Group 4 samples follow strict transportation requirements and are authorized by senior officials at the lab and the NML tracks and keeps electronic records of all shipments of samples in accordance with the HPTA. Agreements for the transfer of materials are determined on a case-by-case basis," Morrisette wrote in an email statement.
"On the specific shipments to China earlier this year, we can confirm that we have all records pertaining to the shipment, and that all protocols were followed as directed by the above Acts and Standards."
Xiangguo Qiu is head of the National Microbiology Lab's Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies section in the Special Pathogens Program. She is responsible for the lab that works with Ebola. Her husband, Keding Cheng, is also a PHAC biologist.
After their security clearance was revoked and they were escorted from the lab, the University of Manitoba also cut ties with them and re-assigned Qiu's graduate students, pending the RCMP investigation. No charges have been laid.
Neither scientist has responded to requests for comment, although some of their former colleagues say Qiu is not just a world-renowned scientist who helped develop a treatment for Ebola, but also a researcher with ethics and integrity.
Case raises questions
One question raised by this case is that of intellectual property protection, says Leah West, who practises, studies and publishes in the field of national security law and lectures at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
"If China was leveraging these scientists in Canada to gain access to a potentially valuable pathogen or to elements of a virus without having to license the patent ... it makes sense with the idea of China trying to gain access to valuable IP without paying for it," she said.
West accepts PHAC's assertion that public safety is not an issue, even though the viruses were transported on a commercial Air Canada flight.
However, she says the fact the RCMP is involved means there's a legitimate concern.
"You don't send a policy breach, a bureaucratic policy breach, to the RCMP to investigate unless you believe that that policy breach has resulted in a criminal offence or could have resulted in a criminal offence. So what is the criminal offence potentially here?" West said.
She said she hopes the lab and Health Canada are also doing an internal investigation.
"I think there will need to be an inquiry into the scientists to potentially see whether or not they were compromised or any elements of their work were compromised and that China gained illegal or improper access to Canadian intellectual property ... to see what China may have gained access to without knowledge, prior to this incident," West says.
Don't 'jump into any conclusions too quickly'
However, the deputy director of the University of Alberta's China Institute is urging caution when it comes to making assumptions.
Jia Wang doesn't dispute China has been involved in the past in espionage and intellectual property theft, but she says that country is making big investments in developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) scholars and then putting that into innovation.
China has its own reasons to protect intellectual property because many new ideas are coming from there, Wang says.
She's waiting to see what comes of the RCMP investigation of the lab in Winnipeg.
"As China observers, we'd like to perhaps gently remind people not to jump into any conclusions too quickly," she said.
"It will be good to get to the bottom of this and see what might have gone wrong and what was the oversight and how can the procedures be improved or people involved can be reminded of how to adhere to the policies better."
The shipment of the viruses took place at a time when relations between Canada and China have been strained over the arrest of a Huawei executive, at the request of the United States.
In retaliation, China has detained two Canadians and is boycotting Canadian canola and pork.
Because of the strained relationship between the two countries, and this case at the lab, Chinese-Canadian researchers and academics are starting to worry they may be singled out and targeted, Wang said.
"Certain assumptions are made or their loyalty to Canada is questioned in any way. And as multicultural as we are in Canada, we don't want to see that."