1709386781 Investigation by some researchers Espionage and Ebola in the

Investigation by some researchers | Espionage and Ebola in the laboratory

After years of delay, the Trudeau government released documents this week about the 2021 firing of some scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. The researchers, who worked with the world's most dangerous pathogens, had ties to the Chinese army. The woman even spilled secrets to China. Here are five highlights of the Canadian intelligence community's investigation into them.

Published at 1:24 am. Updated at 5:00 am.


Cutting-edge research

Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng worked in Canada's only Level 4 virology laboratory, a federal facility recognized worldwide for its expertise. Researchers there manipulate extremely dangerous viruses under strict control. In her role, Ms. Qiu was particularly involved in the development of a revolutionary treatment for the Ebola virus, which earned her the 2018 Governor General's Award.

Ms. Qiu and Mr. Cheng are originally from China, had Canadian citizenship, and were enthusiastic about international scientific collaborations. “Scientists are all about working hard to be more productive and save lives. We help each other advance science,” Ms. Qiu said in an interview reported in the investigative documents.

Rules broken

Investigation by some researchers Espionage and Ebola in the


Xiangguo Qiu with Governor General Julie Payette in 2018

The two researchers were escorted from the lab in 2019 and then released in 2021. Investigations by the Public Health Agency and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) revealed several breaches of the rules on their part.

Mr. Cheng had allowed a Chinese student to move around the lab unsupervised and given another student access to the computer network using his ID. It allowed the use of a Gmail account and a USB stick to transfer experimental data from the laboratory. He had also received mouse proteins from China in a package mislabeled as utensils.

Ms. Qiu's name appeared on a patent in China, in a research area that overlapped with her work in Canada. She also granted access to the Winnipeg laboratory to two Chinese researchers with ties to Chinese government institutions.

Hidden links

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Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg

The CSIS investigation then uncovered joint research conducted by the couple and researchers affiliated with the Chinese Military Academy of Medical Sciences. According to Canadian intelligence, this facility is subordinate to the People's Liberation Army and “has offensive means of producing chemical and biological weapons.”

Ms. Qiu also reportedly admitted to working on a research project with Major General Chen Wei, the Chinese army's top virologist who was recently honored by Xi Jinping for her contribution to the fight against COVID-19. A Chinese soldier who was admitted to the Manitoba laboratory as a student thanks to a scholarship provided by the Chinese Embassy would also have described Maj. Gen. Chen Wei as her mentor.

Ms. Qiu also had ties to several highly lucrative Chinese programs to recruit foreign researchers that “incentivize economic espionage and the theft of intellectual property.”

Some of them allow researchers to earn millions of dollars in China while keeping their day jobs abroad, according to Canadian authorities. The couple also had a bank account in China.

Dangerous work

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Major General Chen Wei (left), the Chinese military's top virologist, with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2020

A Chinese Military Academy document found by Canadian intelligence agents openly stated that Ms. Qiu used the Winnipeg laboratory as an “operations base” to help China combat certain “highly pathogenic” pathogens. The document said Ms. Qiu “provided China with the genetic sequences of the Ebola virus, which was very helpful to China.”

Emails from internal conversations with the researcher's colleagues in Canada indicate that some had concerns about transferring an Ebola sample to China given the danger of the virus.

Xiangguo Qiu also collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Message exchanges discovered by CSIS show that it discussed the possibility of developing vaccines using a controversial approach that involved the creation of synthetic “gain-of-function” virus strains, the aim of which was to improve the infective capacity of a pathogen to study the species its interactions with a host.

Final verdict

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology, in 2021

The verdict of the Canadian intelligence services was final. CSIS concluded that the two researchers blatantly lied throughout the investigation. Ms. Qiu did not follow pathogen transmission protocols and “collaborated with institutions whose goals could include lethal military applications that are clearly not in the best interests of Canada and its people.”

“CSIS believes it disclosed sensitive information,” a 2020 report said. As for Mr. Cheng, CSIS questioned his loyalty and reliability and assumed he “might disclose sensitive information.” The two researchers were therefore fired. A police investigation is currently underway, but the couple appears to have disappeared out of the country.

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Researcher Xiangguo Qiu at work

It took years for the government to release details of the investigation. The opposition parties have called for it several times. Ottawa even went to court to prevent their disclosure, but the process collapsed when the last election was called. Negotiations ultimately led to the formation of a special committee made up of MPs from all four parties represented in the House of Commons to examine the material and determine what could be published.