Mystery around 2 fired scientists points to larger issues at Canada's high-security lab, former colleagues say
'An honest, open discussion from the beginning would have been very, very useful'
Two leading scientists are standing by a pair of researchers fired from Canada's only Level-4 virology lab, instead pointing the finger at issues inside the Winnipeg-based facility itself.
Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband, Keding Cheng, were stripped of their security clearances and escorted from the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in July 2019.
They were then fired in January, though the Public Health Agency of Canada has refused to say why. A RCMP investigation is also ongoing; no charges have been laid.
For months, opposition MPs have been demanding answers about the couple's dismissal and the removal of the Chinese students they were working with, asking whether it could be linked to espionage.
PHAC and government officials have remained tight-lipped about the dismissal, initially citing privacy legislation, but more recently saying that case involves national security concerns.
Now two former colleagues are speaking out, saying that speculation is wrong.
Intellectual property dispute
For the past two years, Gary Kobinger has been watching the case with dismay and disbelief from his lab at Laval University.
As head of the NML's special pathogens unit until 2016, Kobinger and Qiu worked closely together and were internationally acclaimed for creating ZMapp, an Ebola treatment that has saved thousands of lives in West Africa.
"[Qiu] told me, 'This is a misunderstanding and I don't know why I was walked out of the building.' She didn't understand. She was, from the bottom of her heart, saying that this is a misunderstanding," he said in an interview.
After talking with Qiu and other government scientists, Kobinger said he believes the incident started when Qiu was travelling to China — with the NML's knowledge and approval — to help set up a Level-4 lab in Wuhan.
Someone at PHAC was concerned she was sharing proprietary information about biosafety protocols and safe work flows, Kobinger said.
WATCH | Kobinger talks about the security concerns involving Qiu's foreign grad students:
But it's something done regularly between colleagues, he said, "so that they don't have to reinvent the wheel and they don't have to repeat the mistakes of the past."
"These protocols are very specific to location, because they are heavily [dependent] on the physical room where the work is being done," said Kobinger.
"So sharing this — is it intellectual property, really? Are you breaching the intellectual property because you're saying, 'On our side, the way we decontaminate this material is A, B, C, D?'"
In the wake of those trips, PHAC discovered Qiu was listed as an inventor on two patents filed by agencies in China in 2017 and 2019 — a concern that Kobinger said snowballed needlessly.
WATCH | Kobinger talks about how the case has been mishandled:
"She was doing a lot of the same work we used to do … testing molecules and vaccines from other labs, which is one of the reasons why we were successful in developing an Ebola vaccine and a treatment," he said. "In science, you can't work in a silo and think you can succeed."
Chinese scientists gave Qiu credit for her work, but neither PHAC nor NML are named on the patents. That means Canada would be unlikely to receive royalties associated with any sales of the technology, should it get to market.
Federal legislation states Ottawa owns all inventions made by public servants, and a government employee can't file for a patent outside of the country without the minister's permission.
While PHAC was right to raise questions about the patents, Kobinger said the agency overreacted.
Qiu told him she was unaware her name had been added to the patents — and that she herself reported the second one to PHAC.
"An honest, open discussion from the beginning would have been very, very useful to maybe avoid where we seem to be now," he said.
Chinese military scientist got access to Level-4 lab
When Qiu was escorted out of the NML in July 2019, all of her Chinese students were also asked to leave — a move that suggests PHAC was worried about who had access to the lab, which is equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases.
It's a concern that has also been raised by security experts and politicians, who further point to one graduate student in particular: Feihu Yan.
Anyone working at the Winnipeg lab needs one of three levels of federal security clearance:
A reliability status — the minimum standard for positions requiring unsupervised access to Government of Canada protected information, assets, facilities or information technology systems — assesses a person's honesty and whether they can be trusted to protect the employer's interests.
Secret and Top Secret clearances assess a person's loyalty to Canada to determine if they have or are likely to engage in activities that constitute a "threat to the security of Canada." These clearances involve deep background checks by the RCMP and CSIS going back as many as 10 years and include a "loyalty to Canada" test.
Another scientist who worked at the NML for more than a decade told CBC News there are ways around that rigorous vetting process, particularly for non-Canadians, who are sometimes brought in as visiting scientists or students.
CBC is not identifying him because he's concerned about retribution from PHAC. In the following videos, someone else is reading the scientist's words from his CBC interview.
WATCH | Former NML scientist says Dr. Xiangguo Qiu does not fit the profile of a spy:
Some international clearances can take many months, or even years, he said. "And that's also another reason why ... upper management will sometimes skirt around that."
"I've worked at NML long enough that you see people wandering around where they shouldn't be, just because as a chaperone, generally you're not with that person all the time," the scientist said in an interview.
"You'll send them to the lab, they'll do their work, you'll be in your office, and then they can walk around and do what they want."
In some cases, sources say, non-citizens can get reliability status with limitations. Sources inside the lab further confirmed to CBC News that in some cases involving Qiu's students, those limitations were ignored.
But Qiu could not have solely authorized clearance for her students, the former NML scientist said, as senior management would have had to approve it.
"NML, they have a lot of problems they're trying to cover up," he said. "This could be something that fell through the cracks, without question."
Over the last few months, opposition MPs have demanded the release of unredacted documents related to the couple's dismissal.
While PHAC has turned those documents over to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, whose members have top security clearance, the agency has refused to release them to Parliament.
The Liberal government has gone so far as to ask the Federal Court to block release of the information, saying it "could compromise national security, or relates to an ongoing criminal investigation or the privacy of Canadians."
Both scientists who spoke with CBC News assert that the research at the NML is actually behind China in terms of technology and discovery, so there is nothing to steal.
WATCH | Former NML scientist says Xiangguo Qiu should not have been fired:
PHAC declined an interview request and would not say whether security clearance protocols were followed in the cases of Yan and the other researchers, or comment on the intellectual property questions.
"The disclosure of certain information related to this matter is prohibited unless authorized by the Attorney General or ordered by the federal court," it said in a statement.
A CSIS spokesperson said the agency never confirms or denies anything to do with their investigations, while the RCMP won't talk about any ongoing investigation.
Qiu and Cheng could not be reached for comment, however, during a recent visit to their primary home in Winnipeg, a young man answered the door.
He would not confirm where the couple is currently, but told CBC News he would reach them.
"I can relay your message, but ... no guarantees," he said.