The Canadian government is funding a COVID-19 research project led by a University of Alberta professor that includes collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the high-security infectious-disease lab based in the Chinese city where the pandemic began.
The government has given Le Xiaochun, an analytical and environmental toxicology researcher at the University of Alberta, a grant worth more than $828,000 to develop tools that provide rapid and inexpensive COVID-19 screening tests in collaboration with the Wuhan lab.
Prof. Le and his team of researchers are also working with scientists from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to develop the tools, which would then be tested by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
It’s one of roughly 100 projects Ottawa that has funded in recent weeks to help rapidly detect, manage and reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
In a description of the research prepared by the University of Alberta in early March, Prof. Le said once a prototype is ready, and the regulatory requirements met, testing would begin with colleagues in Wuhan.
The Canadian government did not explain why the Wuhan lab was chosen, in particular, as a research partner.
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Patty Hadju said all research projects that receive funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a federal funding agency, undergo “rigorous peer review” by "expert scientists in an impartial, objective and fair manner” – all independent from government.
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Cole Davidson, press secretary for Ms. Hadju, said other funded research projects are teaming with participants in many countries from Vietnam to Ethiopia. “Canada continues to explore every avenue toward combatting COVID-19.”
A spokeswoman for the University of Alberta said the majority of the research in this project is being carried out in Edmonton and Winnipeg and other participants, in addition to Wuhan, are located in Hamilton and Ottawa.
Asked to explain why Wuhan is part of this, university spokeswoman Hallie Brodie said the project began in February, when the majority of global cases were diagnosed in Wuhan. She said the research collaborators in Wuhan have extensive first-hand experience in performing the COVID-19 tests currently used to identify infected individuals.
“The collaboration with the researcher in Wuhan is limited to knowledge sharing only. We are not exchanging samples and are not transferring any funding,” Ms. Brodie said. “It will take a global community of clinicians and researchers collaborating across borders to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to eventually develop vaccinations.”
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has faced increased scrutiny as countries around the world try to determine exactly how the pandemic began.
The Washington Post reported this week that, in 2018, U.S. officials visited the research facility multiple times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4) and was conducting studies on coronaviruses from bats. Those cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the lab and proposed more attention and help. One warned the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential for human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic, the Post reported.
“During interactions with scientists at the [Wuhan] laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the Jan. 19, 2018, cable said.
In 2018, Prof. Le attended as a guest the 10th National Congress of Returned Overseas Chinese Delegates, Ms. Brodie confirmed.
At the meeting were You Quan, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and other top officials, including the minister of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee, which gathers intelligence and attempts to influence Chinese communities abroad.
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis on Thursday said he is concerned about the “risks associated with partnerships between Canadian universities and Chinese government controlled entities.”
Mr. Genuis, a member of the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations, said Beijing’s unwillingness to be upfront about how it handled the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 should give pause to co-operating on research projects in China.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler has accused China of keeping information about the pandemic from the public at a crucial early stage and cited a study by the University of Southampton in Britain that suggests 95 per cent of infections could have been avoided if Beijing had acted three weeks earlier.
“The need to look at these partnerships is increasing in light of COVID-19. We see clearly how a lack of transparency and the suppression of information in China led to the growth of this pandemic,” Mr. Genuis said. “In order to protect institutions, researchers and our national interests, there need to be strong safeguards in place for these kinds of partnerships and clear standards that institutions can follow.”
The cables obtained by The Washington Post have fuelled discussions inside the U.S. government about whether this or the Wuhan Biosafety lab was the source of the virus – even though conclusive proof has yet to emerge, the Post said.
Earlier this week, U.S. President Donald Trump said the administration is trying to determine whether the coronavirus emanated from a lab in Wuhan, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing “needs to come clean” on what they know.
However, China’s foreign ministry, in response, noted Thursday that the World Health Organization has said there is no evidence that the coronavirus that has infected more than two million people globally was made in a lab.
CNN has reported that U.S. intelligence officials do not believe the virus was engineered at the lab but that they are exploring whether someone was infected at the lab through an accident or poor handling of material and may have infected others.
With a report from Reuters
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