'Wake-up call for Canada': Security experts say case of 2 fired scientists could point to espionage

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

China says its scientific co-operation with Canada should not be politicized, responding to questions about two scientists fired from Canada's only Level 4 lab — a case that has led to an RCMP investigation, demands for details in Parliament and concerns about Chinese espionage.

Very few people know why Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband, Keding Cheng, were marched out of the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab (NML) two years ago and stripped of their security clearance. They were officially fired last January.

However, two national security experts believe the case of the scientists raises the possibility of Chinese espionage.

“It appears that what you might well call Chinese agents infiltrated one of the highest prized national security elements when it comes to biosecurity and biodefence,” said Christian Leuprecht, a security expert and professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University.

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

At a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, the spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked if Qiu and Cheng were involved in espionage on behalf of the Chinese government.

It's a matter of record that the couple shared information and virus samples from the Canadian lab with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in May 2019.

“I'm not aware of what you mentioned. China and Canada have some scientific co-operation which is quite normal and should not be politicized,” said Wang Wenbin in response to questions from CBC News.

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

A Level 4 virology facility is a lab equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. That makes the Winnipeg lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling pathogens requiring the highest level of containment, such as Ebola

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has said in the past that the National Microbiology Lab routinely shares samples with other public health labs and that the transfers follow strict protocols.

“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,” PHAC president Iain Stewart told a parliamentary committee in May.

“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.”

While Leuprecht has no inside information about the couple's case, he said the known facts of the story just don't add up. If the pair had committed a straightforward national security violation, he said, charges would have been laid.

Despite a lack of charges, Qiu and Cheng remain under investigation by RCMP.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Julie Courchaine would only say that the Manitoba RCMP's federal serious and organized crime section is taking the lead in the ongoing investigation.

Kiera Lawson, a spokesperson for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), also declined to answer questions, saying: “We do not publicly comment [on], or confirm or deny the specifics of our own investigations.”

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

Qiu is a medical doctor from Tianjin, China, who came to Canada for graduate studies in 1996. She started at the University of Manitoba, but began working at the national lab as a research scientist in 2006, working her way up to become head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies section in NML's special pathogens program.

She was also part of the team that helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014-2016.

But in July 2019, just months after she sent a shipment of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, Qiu, Cheng and the Chinese students she was working with were asked to leave the lab.

  • Canadian scientist sent deadly viruses to Wuhan lab months before RCMP asked to investigate
  • Scientists let go from National Microbiology Laboratory amid RCMP investigation

Ebola is considered a “Category A” bioterrorism agent by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because it can easily spread and results in high death rates. Henipah/Nipah are classified as “Category C” because they can be engineered for mass dissemination.

At the time, sources told CBC News several computers had been seized, a lab log book was missing and Qiu's regular trips to China were suspended.

Demanding answers

For months, the special parliamentary committee on Canada-China Relations has been demanding PHAC provide answers around that shipment of viruses, the reason that the scientists were fired and whether they are Canadian citizens.

PHAC has refused, citing privacy legislation. 

PHAC has said the case involved a possible policy breach, an administrative matter and that the public was never at risk. Recently, however, officials have said it's a matter of national security.

  • O'Toole wants an investigation of Winnipeg virus lab's ties to China
  • PHAC president given until Friday to explain why two scientists let go

Last week, Parliament passed a Conservative motion demanding PHAC turn over hundreds of pages of uncensored documents.

The documents have now been shared with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), which is made up of MPs who are appointed by the prime minister and provided national security clearance.

WATCH | Committee probing case of fired microbiologists stripped of security clearance

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

Federal government grilled on microbiologists stripped of security clearance

The National

15 hours ago


After two scientists working at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg were stripped of their security clearance, national security experts have raised concerns about the possibility of espionage and, on Wednesday, MPs demanded answers in the House of Commons. 2:03

Executive director Lisa-Marie Inman declined to answer questions about the group's work, saying the committee speaks only through its reports. Those reports are vetted by the prime minister before they are made public.

Leuprecht believes the documents may reveal larger security issues at the lab — and may expose the role of Canada's allies in the investigation.

“This would also explain why you haven't charged them, because once you charge them, then eventually you have to put people on trial. And when you put people on trial, then you have to disclose the evidence that you have. So the government might quite intentionally be trying to keep this sort of relatively below the radar as much as it can,” he said.

“This needs to be a wake-up call for Canada about how aggressive the Chinese have become at infiltrating Western institutions for their political, economic and national security benefits,” he said, pointing to concerns about Chinese espionage in recent annual reports by CSIS and NSICOP. 

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

Collaboration with China

In newly released documents, PHAC outlines a secret level clearance is required to work at the NML and anyone working with human pathogens and toxins must have clearance under the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act (HPTA).

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

Since Qiu had access to the Level 4 lab, it indicates she had both clearances.

In 2017 and 2018, Qiu made at least five trips to China, including one to train scientists and technicians at China's newly certified Level 4 lab in Wuhan province.

According to documents obtained by CBC News through access-to-information requests, the trips were funded by a third party, the identity of which was redacted. 

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

In 2017-2018, Qiu authored or co-authored approximately 50 scientific papers. Although she has not been allowed into the NML since mid-2019, she has another 32 publications to her name during that time, including six in 2021. Most involve Ebola or Marburg viruses, as well as Chinese scientists and funding. 

Qiu had also brought over Chinese graduate and post-graduate students to work in her lab.

The Globe and Mail recently reported that one of those scientists was Feihu Yan, from the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

Sources inside the lab tell CBC News they saw the Chinese military scientist at the NML. Qiu has co-authored at least eight publications with Yan.

PHAC spokesperson Eric Morrissette declined to answer questions about Yan's work in Winnipeg, saying “the individual was not an employee” of the lab.

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

Leuprecht and others are critical of the lack of oversight that allowed researchers like Yan to get inside the lab.

“China has a very active, very aggressive and extremely dangerous bioweapons program,” said Leuprecht. “So all the research that's being generated here could easily be reappropriated by the Chinese authorities to advance rather nefarious causes.”

With China's track record of intellectual property espionage, another expert says it's concerning that Chinese research institutions were helping to fund some of the work done in collaboration with NML scientists.

“Why did our security procedures not identify that this was not a good idea, that these individuals, given their background, should not be given security clearances?” said Scott Newark, a former Alberta crown prosecutor, executive officer of the Canadian Police Association, and policy adviser to the Ontario and federal governments.

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

Whereabouts unknown

Qiu and Cheng were last publicly seen at a memorial service for Dr. Frank Plummer, the former head of the national lab who died in February 2020.

They have never been reached for comment, despite visits to their two Winnipeg homes. Neighbours say they haven't seen the couple at their primary residence for months. The second home is a rental property. Former co-workers say Qiu has also bragged about owning a mansion in China.

A recent visit to their property near the beach community of Gimli, Man., found an empty lot with no cottage built on it. 

They were officially fired last January, has said, told a parliamentary committee, CSIS, NSICOP, 50 scientific papers, eight publications with Yan

Newark said their properties — valued at about $1.7 million — raise questions about if they had incomes outside of their federal government salaries, a total of about $250,000 for the two of them. 

“That is an absolute profile … a big red flag,” he said.

Newark also said the Trudeau government's attempts to keep the details of this case under wraps have parallels to a joint RCMP-CSIS intelligence report in the late 1990s called Project Sidewinder.

It found the Chinese government and Asian criminal gangs had been working together in drug smuggling, nuclear espionage and other criminal activities that constituted a threat to Canadian security.

  • Canadian government scientist under investigation trained staff at Level 4 lab in China
  • Representatives of Chinese dissident groups reject Trudeau's comments on racism

However, the report was shelved amid allegations of political pressure not to antagonize China. The then-Liberal government was trying to encourage more trade between the two countries.

“No news is good news, is how we often refer to it,” Newark said. 

“It's playing out again in this case example. There are important security issues — and not just for us, but for all the other countries that we partner with as well — because if there's information that's going from us to a hostile foreign state, that is something that has significant ramifications.”

News Related


After orphaned black bear cub seized, wildlife rehab centre pushes back

Several days after the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI) took in a three-month-old orphaned female bear cub covered in bitumen from up north, provincial authorities showed up without warning on the 140-acre treed property northwest… Read more »

Researchers catch record-breaking sturgeon, thought to be nearly 100 years old

The largest Nechako white sturgeon on record was caught and released on the Nechako River near Vanderhoof, B.C., earlier this month.  Weighing in at 152 kilograms (336 pounds) and measuring 2.9 metres (9.6 feet), the huge… Read more »

How radar technology is used to discover unmarked graves at former residential schools

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing. Before the first electromagnetic waves from any radar device surveying a suspected residential school grave site penetrate the ground, archeologists have likely already… Read more »

Pandemic like a global experiment on how human activity affects wildlife, researcher says

The Current22:54How COVID-19 lockdowns have impacted the natural world When COVID-19 forced nations to go into lockdown and human beings to stay indoors, Amanda Bates began to contemplate the impact the lack of outdoor… Read more »

Defunct Satellites Could Damage Ozone Layer, Burning Aluminum is Reshaping the Planet on its Worst State

The mega constellation of satellites could be harmful to Earth’s ozone layer. Usually, those burning satellites in the atmosphere could contribute to the air pollution and wear out of the planet’s protective layer… Read more »

2021 Solar Eclipse: Sky and Telescope Magazine Offers Chartered Flight to See 'Ring of Fire' This Week

The 2021 Solar Eclipse will happen this Thursday, June 10, and there are plenty of ways to watch it, with Sky and Telescope Magazine offering a chartered flight in Minnesota to get up… Read more »

Nasa has just rejected missions to moons of Jupiter and Neptune – here's what we would have found out

A volcanic eruption on Jupiter’s moon Io. NASA/JPL/DLR It’s been 30 years since Nasa last visited Venus, with the Magellan orbiter in 1990. Now, two new missions have been selected to explore the… Read more »

Why are some mushrooms poisonous?

Why are some mushrooms poisonous and some are not? – Alice T., age 11 You may have noticed that mushrooms pop up in your yard or in parks right after a rain but… Read more »

Carbon dioxide levels hit 50% higher than pre-industrial time

The annual peak of global heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air has reached another dangerous milestone: 50 per cent higher than when the industrial age began. And the average rate of increase is… Read more »

Scientists use gene-splicing tool to ID endangered salmon in California

A gene-editing tool that has led to new cancer therapies and a rapid test for COVID-19 is now helping scientists find endangered species of salmon in the San Francisco Bay. The CRISPR-based Sherlock… Read more »

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos plans to fly to space in July

Jeff Bezos will be aboard for Blue Origin's first human space flight next month. In an Instagram post early Monday, Bezos said he, his brother, and the winner of an ongoing auction will be… Read more »

P.E.I. company prepares to scale up production of alternative bait

A P.E.I. company is getting ready to scale up production as word of its alternative bait spreads across North America, and a cut in the quota of traditional bait leaves fishermen looking for options. Bait… Read more »

It's harvest time! Yukon's 1st off-grid, no-dirt, hydroponics farming unit produces crops

The Kluane Lake Research Station located between Haines Junction and Destruction Bay is known for it's studies on climate change and the impacts it has on wildlife and the ecosystem. Now, they're taking a… Read more »

Power from the ocean: can we use bio-fouling organisms to help extract energy from waves?

Shutterstock/Longjourneys People living near the coast are familiar with the power of ocean waves. What we see when a typical wave breaks on a beach is the endpoint of a global energy conversion… Read more »

High-Speed Lasers Using Four 200 Gbps Lanes Could Reach 800 GbE, Lumentum Team Says

Someday, we could depend on the next-gen lasers which would improve the speed of the gigabit ethernet (GbE) for the cloud environment. Since the technology permits us to endlessly test several streaming services… Read more »

Photographer captures 'odd but exciting' crow behaviour known as anting

Photographer Tony Austin recently captured a peculiar image of a crow with its wings covered in dozens of tiny black ants and in the throes of what appeared to be a behaviour he described as a “very… Read more »

Harvard Joins Google To Make Most Detailed 3D Brain Map: New H01 Dataset Combines Around 225 Million Photos

Harvard University and Google were able to create the most detailed and comprehensive 3D map of the brain. The new study titled “A connectomic study of a petascale fragment of human cerebral cortex”… Read more »

Canada may see more 'zombie fires' as climate warms and winters shorten: experts

Blazes that continue to burn through the winter in Canada were once thought to be a myth, but the so-called zombie fires may become more common as temperatures get warmer and less snow… Read more »

Crowdsourced data helps create 'pop-up' habitats for migratory birds

What On Earth34:50Biodiversity on the brink In the summertime, Hans Herkert's farm land in the Central Valley of California is filled with growing rice, a medium-grain variety likely to find its way into… Read more »

Is recreational fishing technology getting ahead of the regulations that protect fish?

Every fishing season anglers head to the tackle shops to find the latest gadget to help land the big one. But some scientists are concerned this gives fishers a greater advantage that may… Read more »

NASA’s Juno Will Have a Chance to Peek Into Jupiter’s Moon – Ganymede

(Photo : NASA) NASA’s new mission to take a good look at Ganymede, Jupiter‘s super moon, will occur this Monday. Juno is NASA’s spacecraft, and it will bring us closer than ever to… Read more »

Sharks were almost wiped out in a mysterious extinction 19 million years ago, new study finds

Quirks and Quarks8:18Sharks were almost wiped out in a mystery extinction 19 million years ago Scientists studying ocean floor sediments have discovered a previously unknown mass shark extinction that may point to an unknown period… Read more »

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Plan to Build a 'Game-Changer' in Nuclear Tech in the U.S. Top Coal-Producing State

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are teaming up to replace a retiring coal power plant in Wyoming, the top coal-producing state in the U.S., with new nuclear tech. (Photo : by Spencer Platt/Getty… Read more »

NASA Says 'Ring of Fire' Solar Eclipse to be Viewable in Select Regions--How to Watch it Safely on June 10

NASA confirms that the first solar eclipse for this year will come on Thursday, June 10 in the morning. The space agency says that not all parts of the world could witness the… Read more »

'Natural climate solutions' are available to help Canada meet emissions targets, new study says

Canada could reach one-third of its greenhouse gas reduction targets by making better use of its vast forests, prairies and wetlands, says a report by more than three dozen scientists. The researchers from… Read more »

'The planet needs us to consume less': How we can move to a post-consumer society

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)… Read more »

Ontario finalizes plans to overhaul blue box program

Ontario has finalized plans to expand recycling services across the province — and to make product producers pay for it. On Thursday, Ontario's Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said blue box programs would be consolidated… Read more »

A black bear visits this man's Ipperwash Beach home at night

In the 23 years Greg Shepley has lived on East Parkway Drive across from Ipperwash beach, he's never seen a bear. But for the last ten days, a 300-pound black bear has visited his… Read more »

Not your regular load of bull: Rare triplets born to cow on Brantford farm

The ear tags on three lanky calves loping around the pasture at Bow Park Farm near Brantford, Ont., read 1, 2 and 3. The numbers offer a hint at what makes the trio special, but… Read more »

Scientists Discover Digital Twin Technology – Would You Kill Your Twin?

Scientists might have finally found a way how you can live longer — by killing your digital twin. Your digital twin lives in a computer, and doctors can administer all forms of drugs,… Read more »

NASA plans 2 new robotic missions to Venus

NASA is returning to sizzling Venus, our closest yet perhaps most overlooked neighbour, after decades of exploring other worlds. The space agency's new administrator, Bill Nelson, announced two new robotic missions to the… Read more »

Prepare for bear: Expert launches free bear safety website

As spring begins in earnest, bear expert Kim Titchener says people typically have a flood of questions about an animal often equal parts revered and feared by Alberta's hiking enthusiasts.  Some of the most common questions,… Read more »

Fire crews rescue baby deer from trench near Western

A fire truck, a rescue vehicle and another car all arrived on scene to rescue a bleating deer from a trench next to a Western University building. “There was a baby deer in… Read more »

How an all-female anti-poaching unit in South Africa used smartphones to protect wildlife

6:36How an all-female anti-poaching unit in South Africa is using tech to protect wildlife In South Africa's Olifants West Nature Reserve, rangers can only do so much to stop poachers. But thanks to… Read more »

Clarinetist makes 'strange, but beautiful' music with Brood X cicadas

6:00This clarinetist is making 'strange, but beautiful' music with Brood X cicadas It's been years since clarinetist David Rothenberg jammed with his pals. But now he's finally getting the band back together. Rothenberg… Read more »

New solar options turn building facades into power plants

When you walk through the sun-filled atrium of the Edmonton Convention Centre or glimpse the dramatic sloped roof of the Varennes Library in suburban Montreal, it's not obvious these buildings are generating power.… Read more »

Where to see the bison roam in Alberta, according to naturalist Brian Keating

Albertans wanting to see where the bison roam don't have to travel too far — just about four hours from Calgary, in fact. In Elk Island National Park, which is located about 40 kilometres east… Read more »

Ship fire off coast of Sri Lankan capital leaves tons of plastic waste, debris on beach

A special Sri Lankan police team has begun investigating a fire on a container ship anchored off its capital as the government seeks to take legal action against the vessel's owners over the incident,… Read more »

City of Moncton getting mixed results with efforts to persuade geese to nest elsewhere

Moncton is having mixed results with its efforts to discourage geese from nesting near two popular walking trails in the city's west end. Dan Hicks, the director of parks operations, says the number… Read more »

Tesla Powerpacks Sent to Provide More Energy to Solar-Powered Haiti Hospital

Tesla Powerpacks are not only used to supply more renewable sources of energy to a region but also they could be used as a backup for a public building like the hospital to… Read more »

Climate change to blame for 37% of heat deaths, study estimates

More than one-third of the world's heat deaths each year are due directly to global warming, according to the latest study to calculate the human cost of climate change. But scientists say that's… Read more »

Electric cars are booming. But what are the environmental costs of all those batteries?

What On Earth27:46Charging up for the EV boom Around the world, the electric car industry is kicking into overdrive — but while many are cheering the shift away from fossil fuels, some are… Read more »

Victoria artist over the moon about his paintings being launched into space

Artist Mark Heine's paintings are out of this world, or at least they will be when his art travels to the moon this year.  Heine is one of 3,000 visual artists chosen to be… Read more »

Grizzly that killed Alberta woman captured, will be euthanized

Alberta Fish and Wildlife says it has captured and will euthanize a grizzly that killed a woman near Water Valley last week. A 68-year-old woman was killed in a bear attack on Tuesday on… Read more »

After childrens' mass grave found, advocates say it's time to scan all residential school sites

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing. When Jackie Bromley, 70, heard the news, she had flashbacks of her time at St. Mary's Residential School on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta. … Read more »

'Mom Genes' explores the radical biological transformations of motherhood

Quirks and Quarks16:33‘Mom Genes’ explores the radical biological transformations of motherhood Becoming a mother is a life-changing event in ways that really only become clear to new mothers when they go through it. It's… Read more »

Cities have a unique microbiome, just like your gut

Quirks and Quarks8:32By swabbing subways researchers discover the municipal microbiome of cities worldwide Researchers swabbing subway stations for microbial life have created the first worldwide catalogue of urban microbial ecosystems, and in the process discovered… Read more »

What you need to know about old growth trees in B.C. — and the threats facing them

Old growth trees — one of British Columbia's most iconic natural symbols — are once again grabbing international attention as hundreds of protesters are willing to be arrested rather than see the trees cut down for… Read more »

High pollen levels to blame for worse allergy season, experts say

Experts say higher than normal pollen levels have led to a sneezier allergy season in parts of Canada this year. They point to an earlier blossom and warmer May, which led to an… Read more »

How Vancouver Aquarium otters took over a Twitch channel featuring video gamers live streaming from hot tubs

One of Twitch's newest and perhaps most controversial channels is dedicated to female video gamers live streaming their game play from hot tubs. But sandwiched in between those videos, and as one of the most-viewed streams on that channel,… Read more »