Public Health Agency refusing to disclose uncensored documents on Winnipeg virus lab

As the Public Health Agency of Canada refuses to release uncensored internal documents, a Conservative MP says he wants to know how far Canada's collaboration with China on Level-4 pathogens went — and why two federal scientists were let go by the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg in January.

Foreign affairs critic wants to know what Canada's role was in training, equipping Wuhan virology lab

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu at the at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg. A special parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations wants to know why she and her husband were let go from the lab amid an RCMP investigation. (CBC)

As the Public Health Agency of Canada refuses to release uncensored internal documents, a Conservative MP says he wants to know how far Canada's collaboration with China on Level-4 pathogens went — and why two federal scientists were let go by the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg in January.

"We need these documents. We need to know what the Government of Canada was doing through the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg with respect to cooperating with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China," Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said during a special parliamentary committee hearing on Canada-China relations Monday night.

The special committee has demanded to know why two federal government scientists were escorted out of Canada's only Level 4 Lab in July 2019, just four months after one of them shipped samples of the Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China — stories first published by CBC News.

Two months after that shipment, on May 24, 2019, 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 her husband, Keding Cheng — and several international students on July 5.

Conservative MP Michael Chong says he wants to know why two scientists were let go from the National Microbiology Lab, why the RCMP is investigating them and whether the training the Winnipeg lab has given its counterpart in Wuhan, China has any connection with the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The committee says it wants to know why Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng were let go this past January.

"The Canadian public has the right to know what the extent of that cooperation was, why these two scientists there were terminated, and what exactly happened with the transfer of Henipah and Ebola viruses and any other workings and goings on between a Government of Canada institution and this virology lab in Wuhan," Chong said.

Despite repeated requests from the committee, PHAC has refused to answer those questions or provide uncensored internal documents, saying it can't release personal information under federal privacy laws.

It did provide 271 pages of documents to the committee in advance of Monday's meeting, but much of it was censored.

"We've redacted documents where the information pertains to personal information, investigations or security matters. The reason we've done so is that, as public servants, we're bound by law to keep confidential information confidential," PHAC president Iain Stewart told the committee.

"It's not that we're wishing to be uncooperative or unresponsive. We are disclosing as much as we can within the limits of the law."

Iain Stewart, president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, says federal privacy law prevents him from sharing personal information about the two scientists let go from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. (National Research Council/Twitter)

Liberal MP Robert Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, told Stewart he should get a second opinion on that.

"I think the Justice Department is not giving you the best advice," he said.

Stewart did provide more information on the shipment of Ebola and Henipah samples from Winnipeg to the Wuhan lab. He said the shipment was done properly.

"While this is the only time that we have shared virus samples with this particular lab, collaboration with labs outside of Canada are critical to advance public health research into infectious diseases," he said.

"Given our standing as a collaborating partner for viral fever viruses, as well as our knowledge on regulations and standards for these types of transfers, the laboratory in Winnipeg is often asked to provide materials to new or existing programs, including laboratories in the United States.

"The [National Microbiology Lab] is open to providing materials in a safe, responsible and transparent fashion with other labs in order to foster global collaboration rather than enable research on any given disease to be monopolized by specific teams."

Right to know

Conservative human rights critic Garnett Genuis said there is a precedent in a 2010 ruling for fulfilling the committee's request for unredacted documents.

That ruling by the Speaker of the House of Commons found the Harper government breached parliamentary privilege when it refused to produce uncensored documents on the treatment of Afghan detainees. It ordered that the material be turned over to MPs.

Chong said Canadians have a right to know the full back story and the committee has the legal right to compel the release of unredacted documents.

He asked some pointed questions about what the National Microbiology Lab did to build up the capacity of its counterpart in Wuhan, China — a virology lab some have tried to link to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those theories have not been substantiated.

"There are two theories about how the coronavirus emerged. One is that it was zoonotic," Chong told the committee. A zoonotic virus is one that jumps from an animal species to humans.

"The other is that it somehow came out of this National Institute of Virology lab in Wuhan," he continued. "This is not in some dark part of the web driven by conspiracies. These are reputable people raising very real questions."

'Far-fetched ideas'

Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos accused Chong of spreading disinformation.

"Mr. Chong is proceeding to connect dots here that, you know, he is borrowing from some of the wildest theories on Facebook and other social media to make a point here that is irrelevant to this committee," he said.

Oliphant said he agrees the documents should be released but called Chong's comments irresponsible.

"What I am disagreeing with is far-fetched ideas that even hint at some association that makes no sense. And that somehow there is something embedded in these documents that's going to solve the world's question about where the coronavirus COVID-19 came from," Oliphant said.

"That's bad rhetoric. I think it's misinformation. I think it's drawing associations that should not be drawn together at a committee of Parliament. And I think it just cedes the oddest ideas in other people's heads."

The National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg is Canada's only Level-Four lab, capable of working with the world's deadliest pathogens. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

In interview Tuesday with CBC News, Chong clarified and backtracked slightly, saying he was not associating Canada's lab with the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. He said he merely questioned Canada's role in training and equipping the lab in Wuhan to get Level-4 certification.

"If it turns out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the source of the coronavirus that started this global pandemic, then we need a lot more oversight of the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and the role it played in helping build capacity," Chong said.

No connections, PHAC says

The RCMP and PHAC have consistently denied any connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus shipments. There is no evidence linking the shipment to the spread of the coronavirus. Ebola is a filovirus and Henipah is a paramyxovirus — the Winnipeg lab sent no coronavirus samples to Wuhan, PHAC said.

"They are not, in fact, at all related and would not have been used or relevant to SARS-CoV-2," the lab's scientific director-general, Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, told the committee Monday.

At the conclusion of the meeting, members of the committee passed a motion demanding that unredacted copies of all PHAC records on the matter be turned over to the House of Commons law clerk for review within 10 days.

The committee would then meet in secret to determine what could be released publicly.

The committee also voted to send the matter to the House of Commons if PHAC refuses to produce the documents. Parliament would then be asked to demand disclosure.