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How 2 scientists at a high-security lab triggered a national security scandal

The release earlier this week of hundreds of documents has pulled the curtain back on an explosive national security case that led to the firing of two scientists from the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab.

CSIS says scientist fired from Winnipeg disease lab intentionally worked to benefit China

An Asian woman with glasses wears a blue biocontainment suit connected to a respirator while working in a laboratory environment.

A high-security lab. Ebola. A mysterious package. The Chinese military.

The release earlier this week of hundreds of documents related to the dismissal of two scientists — Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng — has pulled back the curtain on an explosive national security probe at the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab, part of the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health (CSCHAH).

The investigation — and the fight to make information about the investigation public — took years.

How it started

According to Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) documents, the agency's National Security Management Division was advised in September 2018 that Qiu had been listed as the inventor on a Chinese patent that might have contained scientific information produced at the CSCHAH in Winnipeg — and that she shared that data without authority.

Speaking to investigators from Presidia Security Consulting, the outside firm hired by PHAC to conduct a fact-finding mission, Qiu, then head of vaccines and antivirals with the CSCHAH's zoonotic diseases and special pathogens division, said she didn't know her name was on the patent.

WATCH | Scientists fired from Winnipeg lab shared information with China, documents say

Intelligence documents detail why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were fired from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg in 2021.

According to Presidia's March 2019 report, multiple interview subjects, including PHAC's chief science officer, told investigators that it was highly unlikely that a researcher's name would appear on a patent without their knowledge.

The patent dealt with a treatment for Ebola. Fellow employees at the National Microbiology Lab interviewed as part of PHAC's fact-finding mission said the patent likely used information the CSCHAH lab had collected while searching for molecules and compounds that could inhibit Ebola.

The National Security Management Division also began an investigation into allegations that Cheng also had breached security policies in relation to students under his supervision.

Their interviews pointed to some lax security practices at the National Microbiology Lab. For example, in May 2018 a package from China labelled "kitchen utensils" arrived at the lab addressed to Cheng. An X-ray showed it contained vials containing a substance that was later found to be mouse protein. Cheng told investigators he didn't know it was coming and it wasn't infectious.

Other interview subjects (their names are redacted in the documents) suggested visitors were allowed on the premises without escorts. One subject said she heard of an incident where individuals were trying to remove vials.

"[Restricted visitors], they run amok. They have a sense of entitlement," she said.

The initial PHAC fact-finding mission raised many more questions.

On July 5, 2019 Qiu and Cheng were told they were subjects of an administrative investigation and ordered to stay home. At that point, their access cards and computer accounts were deactivated.

By February 2020, PHAC had determined the couple violated multiple policies by, among other things, shipping antibodies outside of the lab without authorization — including to the China National Institute for Food and Drugs — and failing to monitor restricted visitors who were later accused of removing government property without permission.

What CSIS found

Alarmed by the findings, PHAC sent its administrative report to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which reopened its security assessment of Qiu and Cheng. The intelligence agency is in charge of conducting assessments of government employees who have access to classified information and sensitive sites.

The documents show the service's initial assessment of the couple in April 2020 gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Cheng told CSIS he had "no connection with foreign officials. I'm just a biologist."

Qiu told CSIS she was unaware of the proper policies and procedures that needed to be followed and was too busy to read PHAC emails. She said that while she grew up in China, she considered herself Canadian.

"The service does not have a reason to suggest that Ms. Qiu would willingly cooperate with a foreign power knowing that harm would come to Canada," said CSIS's spring 2020 assessment.

"We do assess, however, that because of certain features of character — such as an overriding faith in the good intentions of other scientists, and a clear desire to avoid rules or procedures that could slow her down — that Ms. Qiu is susceptible to influence by a foreign state that could result in information or materials leaving the laboratory that could harm national security or the health of individuals."

But by June of 2020, CSIS felt differently — and was armed with evidence.

In a document drafted that month and released this week, CSIS wrote that Qiu was using the level 4 lab in Canada "as a base to assist China to improve its capability to fight highly-pathogenic pathogens" and "achieved brilliant results."

Qiu provided Beijing "with the Ebola genetic sequence, which opened a door of convenience for China," CSIS wrote.

Pointing to applications recovered in the course of their investigation, CSIS said Qiu applied to China's Thousand Talents Program for the stated purpose of helping the People's Republic of China build up its infectious disease research.

Beijing's Thousand Talents Program was set up to "boost China's national technological capabilities and may pose a serious threat to research institutions, including government research facilities, by incentivizing economic espionage and theft of intellectual property," said CSIS in its report.

Qiu was also listed as a co-author on a research paper along with individuals linked to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, which CSIS described as the highest-level medical research institution in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). The academy works on "health service tasks" for the army, said CSIS.

"These tasks include the development of military biotechnologies, biological counter-terrorism and the prevention and control of major diseases," CSIS wrote.

CSIS said Qiu told 'outright lies'

Qiu told her CSIS interviewers she didn't think her scientific research could be used by foreign entities for nefarious purposes.

When confronted with her ties to China "Ms. Qiu continued to make blanket denials, feign ignorance or tell outright lies," said the June 2020 CSIS assessment.

In one instance, Qiu told investigators a 2018 trip to China was a personal vacation. But she was later confronted with evidence she had agreed to work for the Wuhan Institute of Virology for at least two months each year, with the aim of boosting China's "biosecurity platform for new and potent infectious disease research," said CSIS.

According to an email uncovered by the service, Qiu discussed shipping the Ebola virus to the Wuhan institute, without authorization.

The intelligence service also said it believed Cheng was not truthful in his interviews and had worked with a restricted visitor at PHAC "who is connected to the People's Liberation Army."

"The service assesses that Ms. Qiu developed deep, cooperative relationships with a variety of People's Republic of China (PRC) institutions and has intentionally transferred scientific knowledge and materials to China in order to benefit the PRC Government, and herself, without regard for the implications to her employer or to Canada's interests," CSIS wrote.

Taking CSIS's findings into consideration, PHAC suspended the couple's security clearances — a condition of their employment — in August of 2020.

Both filed grievances, alleging discrimination, reputational damage and emotional toil. The grievances were dismissed.

Pointing to a mountain of evidence, PHAC concluded Qiu represented a threat to the organization.

"Dr. Qiu represents a very serious and credible danger to the government of Canada as a whole and in particular at facilities considered high-security due to the potential for theft of dangerous materials attractive to terrorist and foreign entities that conduct espionage to infiltrate and damage the economic security of Canada," said a November 2020 PHAC report.

"Dr. Qiu demonstrates dishonest behaviour and her actions bring into question her trustworthiness."

PHAC also said Cheng had invited foreign scientists to work at the National Microbiology Lab for months without approval and could not be trusted.

The government ultimately decided to revoke Qiu and Cheng's secret security clearances. Their dismissals were announced in January 2021.

CBC has made multiple attempts to contact Qiu and Cheng.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa has denied that China stole Canadian information.

"The allegation that China tried to steal the secrets of Canada is entirely groundless," said an embassy statement. "We firmly oppose this."

The fight for the documents

After opposition parties spent years demanding access to government documents about the case, the federal government released hundreds of redacted pages on Wednesday.

The government initially opposed releasing the bulk of the information, arguing that it would be detrimental to national security. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would instead share the documents with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), which is made up of MPs who are appointed by the prime minister and hold national security clearances.

WATCH |Trudeau accuses Conservatives of weaponizing national security

Asked about Winnipeg high-security lab, Trudeau accuses Conservatives of weaponizing national security

2 days ago

Duration 3:37

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has asked his national security adviser to look into what happened at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and make recommendations. He then pivots to criticize Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, accusing him of spewing conspiracy theories.

In June 2021, opposition parties voted to declare the Liberal government in contempt of Parliament over its refusal to release the documents. The federal government then took the Speaker of the House of Commons to court to get a judge's confirmation that it has the legal authority to withhold documents requested by members of Parliament sitting on a Commons committee.

Later, a special committee of MPs was set up to review the redactions. While the committee acknowledged some information should remain blacked-out due to national security concerns, it concluded that other information was being censored to protect government agencies. A panel of former judges signed off on the final release.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre traded shots over the case.

Poilievre accused Trudeau of allowing China to "infiltrate" Canada and covering it up by delaying the release of the documents.

WATCH | National Microbiology Lab researchers should not collaborate with China, Poilievre says

National Microbiology Lab researchers should not collaborate with China, Poilievre says

2 days ago

Duration 1:02

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says researchers at the Winnipeg-based lab should not be allowed to collaborate with China.

Later that day, Trudeau accused Poilievre of weaponizing national security.

"The quickness with which they're looking for partisan advantage is not just undermining Canadians' trust in the system, but interfering with the ability of Parliament to deal with this," he said.

Trudeau said he's asked his national security adviser to look into what happened at the lab and to make recommendations.

The RCMP says it's still investigating the matter.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from Karen Pauls

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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