O'Toole wants an investigation of Winnipeg virus lab's ties to China

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is demanding the Public Health Agency of Canada release documents that detail the relationship between Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Two scientists were fired after shipping samples of highly contagious pathogens to Wuhan

Security personnel gather near the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization team in Wuhan in China's Hubei province on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (Ng Hah Guan/AP Photo)

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is demanding the Public Health Agency of Canada release documents that detail the relationship between Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and the Wuhan Institute of Virology — an ill-fated partnership that resulted in two scientists being removed from the Winnipeg lab after they shipped samples of the Ebola and Henipah viruses to the lab in China.

As CBC News first reported in 2019, Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng and a number of her students from China were escorted from Canada's only level-4 lab after one of them shipped samples of these highly contagious pathogens to Wuhan.

Level 4 labs are built to work with extremely infectious pathogens that, if released, could cause immense damage. Qiu was head of the vaccine development and antiviral therapies section in the special pathogens program at the lab.

PHAC has referred the matter to the RCMP and Qiu and Cheng were fired this past January.

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, seen here in an undated image from a CBC segment, at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg. (CBC)

O'Toole said Tuesday parliamentarians have a right to know more about these scientists and any security breaches associated with shipping samples of the world's deadliest diseases to a country that has an adversarial relationship with Canada and its closest allies.

O'Toole called PHAC's ongoing refusal to provide more details about this incident a "deeply troubling cover-up."

"How could two scientists with deep connections to the Chinese military be able to gain access to a high-level Canadian security-cleared laboratory with the world's most dangerous viruses?" O'Toole said.

"We have some serious questions about this apparent breach of protocol and the ongoing disconnect between Mr. Trudeau and the reality of the Communist regime in Beijing."

The National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

While PHAC has released some documents to the Commons Canada-China relations committee, much of the information they contain has been heavily redacted. The Tories have tabled an opposition day motion asking the government to call off the censors.

PHAC president Iain Stewart defended the secrecy last month, saying he's "bound by law to keep confidential information confidential."

The Wuhan lab that received those pathogens from Canada is now the focus of a World Health Organization (WHO) probe into the origins of COVID-19.

U.S. President Joe Biden has directed American intelligence agencies to "redouble" their efforts to learn whether the virus emerged from the lab in that city — the initial epicentre of the pandemic.

Biden's order came after U.S. intelligence discovered more details about three researchers at the Wuhan lab who fell ill in November 2019 — weeks before the first identified case of the outbreak and more than a month before China informed the WHO that "cases of pneumonia" of an "unknown cause" had been detected in that city. China has denied the claim that a lab leak caused the pandemic.

O'Toole said the Liberal government needs to take a harder line against Beijing.

While Canada's security agencies have long warned against research cooperation with Chinese regime, there has been little effort to curb these links on Trudeau's watch, O'Toole said.

He slammed the government's 2017 decision to allow a Chinese company to acquire ITF Technologies, a Quebec-based high-tech firm that does business with national-security agencies. ITF sold laser technology used in some weapons.

O'Toole said Trudeau also needs to ban China-based telecom giant Huawei from building Canada's 5G network. "For years he's promised action," O'Toole said. "This is Justin Trudeau's legacy."

During the 2015 federal election, the Liberal Party pledged to "explore deeper trade relationships" with China. Trudeau travelled to that country for preliminary free trade talks in 2017.

The relationship soured after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on U.S. orders in 2018. The Chinese government subsequently arrested two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The two have been in Chinese custody for 904 days.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Karen Pauls