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Frame grab from video of Xiangguo Qiu. The source video is the 2018 Governor General's Innovation Awards honouring recipients Gary Kobinger and Ms. Qiu for their work on Ebola.Governor General's Innovation Awards

Two scientists at Canada’s high-security infectious disease laboratory – Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng – provided confidential scientific information to China and were fired after a probe concluded she posed “a realistic and credible threat to Canada’s economic security” and it was discovered they engaged in clandestine meetings with Chinese officials, documents tabled in the House of Commons reveal.

Dr. Qiu, who worked at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, was dishonest when confronted with her actions, making “blanket denials” and “half-truths, and personally benefited from the arrangement,” the documents state, noting that she repeatedly lied to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and “refused to admit to any involvement in various PRC [People’s Republic of China] programs.”

The two infectious-disease scientists were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in July, 2019, and later had their security clearances revoked. They were fired in January, 2021. Their whereabouts are not known.

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Xiangguo Qiu an Keding Cheng's connections to China are outlined in detail in a CSIS security assessment from Jan. 8, 2021, marked secret.Governor General’s Innovation Awards; Excerpt from CSIS report

CSIS, in a Jan. 8, 2021, report marked secret, said its findings call “into question Ms. Qiu’s loyalty to Canada and her reliability as it relates to loyalty.”

It highlights her “close and clandestine relationships with a variety of entities of the People’s Republic of China, which is a known security threat to Canada,” her “complete lack of candour regarding her relationship with those institutions and her reckless judgment regarding decisions that could have impacted public safety and the interests of Canada.”

On Wednesday, the government released records of the investigation into the two scientists that had been previously censored from public view. Opposition parties had united to demand the release of the documents after the government in 2021 released heavily redacted Public Health Agency of Canada documents that obscured the full story.

Back then, the government had resisted providing the documents and CSIS records on the grounds that doing so would harm national security. In June, 2021, opposition parties voted to declare the Liberal government in contempt of Parliament and Ottawa took the Speaker of the House of Commons to court to fight the release before dropping the legal action after an election was called.

Opposition parties renewed their calls for transparency after the election and negotiations led to the appointment of a special committee, with MPs from four parties, to examine uncensored versions of the documents and recommend what more could be released.

In a statement on Wednesday after the release of the documents, the Public Health Agency of Canada did not address the two scientists or what transpired, but instead focused on security changes that have been made since 2019.

The investigation into the scientists, the agency said, “informed important enhancements” to security measures, including regular training on security and employee responsibilities.

“International collaborations require review from a security perspective and governance is in place to vet and approve new collaborations,” PHAC said in the statement, adding the high-security lab has a “renewed, proactive security posture.”

Health Minister Mark Holland said that PHAC’s failure to enforce security protocols at the lab in 2019 was unacceptable. “There was a lax adherence to the securities and protocols that were in place,” he said.

But he maintained that “at no time, did national secrets or did information that threatened the security of Canada leave or enter the lab.”

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in a statement that the documents show that under the government’s watch, the People’s Republic of China and its entities that include the military “were allowed to infiltrate Canada’s top level lab.”

“This is a massive national security failure by Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government, which he fought tooth and nail to cover up,” Mr. Poilievre said. “He cannot be trusted to keep our people and our country safe.”

The NDP said Wednesday that it is “appalled by the carelessness from this Liberal government on safeguarding highly classified information from the National Microbiology Laboratory – Canada’s supposedly highest security lab.”

“Those two scientists broke multiple rules and regulations and had close contact with Chinese officials,” NDP MP Heather McPherson said in a statement. “To make matters worse, the Liberals attempted to redact the most damning parts of these documents to conceal their inability to keep our institutions safe from foreign states like China.”

In the CSIS documents released Wednesday, the security agency said it uncovered Dr. Qiu’s association with multiple “talent programs” run by Chinese authorities that “aim 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.”

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Excerpt from CSIS report

Dr. Qiu and her husband had an undisclosed bank account in China’s Commercial Bank, the documents reveal, and she had conducted research connected to the People’s Liberation Army. CSIS said it found an unfinalized work agreement for a talent program with Hebei Medical University that stipulated she would be provided with funding worth the equivalent of $1.2-million Canadian between 2018 and 2022.

The agency said it found an application from her to the program that said she would work for China’s Wuhan Virology Institute for at least two months every year.

As part of her enrolment, CSIS said, Dr. Qiu committed to “building the People’s Republic of China’s biosecurity platform for new and potent infectious disease research.”

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Excerpt from CSIS report

The CSIS investigation found Dr. Qiu led a project at Wuhan Virology Institute that would assess cross-species infection and pathogenic risks of filoviruses – work that the service said suggests “gain-of-function studies were possibly to take place.”

Gain-of-function studies, it said, include research to improve the ability of a pathogen to cause disease “in order to help define the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions.”

The service said Dr. Qiu listed a number of employment experiences on her curriculum vitae for Chinese audiences that were not included on her CV destined for Canadian audiences. They include visiting research scientist at the Wuhan Virology Institute, visiting professor at Hebei Medical University, visiting research fellow at China’s National Institute for Food and Drug Control and visiting professor at Beijing Institute for Biotechnology.

Dr. Qiu “developed deep, cooperative relationships with a variety of People’s Republic of China institutions and has intentionally transferred scientific knowledge and materials to China to benefit the PRC, and herself, without regard for the implications to her employer or to Canada’s interest,” CSIS concluded.

It said she repeatedly lied in her security-screening interviews about the extent of her work with institutions of the Chinese government and “refused to admit to any involvement in various PRC programs,” even when documents about this work “were put before her.”

The service said she was reckless in her dealings with various Chinese entities and working with institutions “whose goals have potentially lethal military applications that are manifestly not in the interests of Canada or its citizens.”

She also allowed access to the Winnipeg virus lab to at least two employees of a Chinese institution “whose work is not aligned with Canadian interests.”

CSIS concluded that were she ever reinstated at the National Microbiology Lab, Canada’s national security may be put into jeopardy “as there is no indication, based on her extensive research and interviews of her, that she would change her behavior in any respect.”

The security agency noted that Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and antiviral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, collaborated on scientific papers with Chinese military researchers, including Major-General Chen Wei, a high-ranking officer in the People’s Liberation Army, recently lauded by President Xi Jinping for developing a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine.

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Excerpt from CSIS report

The Globe has reported that the couple and other scientists at the lab collaborated with Chinese military researchers to study and conduct experiments on deadly pathogens such as Ebola, Lassa fever and Rift Valley fever.

One of the Chinese researchers, Feihu Yan, from the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time at the Winnipeg lab.

A significant number of papers were in collaboration with Chinese scientists where research was funded by Chinese government bodies.

“Ms. Qiu initially denied knowing of or working with anyone who was involved in military research that is connected to the People’s Liberation Army of the PRC or any military research institutes,” according to CSIS. “It is clear that Ms. Qiu not only failed to inform her employer of these activities but made efforts to conceal her projects with PRC institutions.”

Wednesday’s release of more Public Health Agency of Canada records on the firing of Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng revealed they were under investigation in 2019 into allegations she had breached PHAC rules by transferring intellectual property without authorization. That came after it was discovered in 2018 she appeared as a listed inventor on a Chinese patent that might have contained scientific information produced at the Canadian Sciences Centre for Human and Animal Health, a lab within an infectious-disease research complex owned by the government of Canada.

Dr. Qiu acknowledged some of the work that went into the patent took place at the Winnipeg National Microbiology Laboratory, but said she had not authorized the Chinese researchers to put her name on the patent application. She also acknowledged that there was no collaboration agreement drawn up for the research that ended up in the Chinese patent.

The investigators concluded they found it “highly improbable” that a researcher’s name would be attached to a patent without their knowledge.

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Dr. Qiu used to work at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, a high-security facility.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Cheng was under investigation after students he supervised attempted to remove laboratory materials without authorization. The investigators said it was likely the vials removed by students were empty, but they found it highly suspicious that Mr. Cheng used a code to enter the animal health lab that was assigned to another employee – although they said they did not see anything nefarious in it.

The investigators said in an interview Dr. Qiu also disclosed that she had collaborated with China’s National Institute for Food and Drug Control, which is attempting to develop an inhibitor to the Ebola virus. She admitted she did not file a collaboration agreement, saying that would only apply if the endeavour was a big project. “Further, she stated she sent them antibodies without a material transfer agreement,” referring to the paperwork needed.

During their conversations with Dr. Qiu, investigators came across numerous examples of collaborations, often with China, where she had failed to obtain a collaboration agreement, but in some cases had obtained a letter of support from Canadian authorities. The investigators recommended further investigation into all her collaborations to ensure she had obtained sufficient clearance.

In a July, 2019, letter to Dr. Qiu, shortly before she and Mr. Cheng were escorted from the lab, PHAC brass informed her a bigger “administrative investigation” was under way to probe allegations, saying “you failed to protect Government of Canada property and information in the course of your scientific collaborations; that you or the restricted visitors under your supervision inappropriately disseminated, facilitated or authorized the dissemination of scientific data and other information to unauthorized persons.”

A similar letter was sent to Mr. Cheng.

Xiangguo Qiu, one of two scientists fired from Canada’s infectious disease laboratory in Winnipeg, talks about her Ebola research in a 2018 video celebrating innovators. Documents show Dr. Qiu and another scientist, Keding Cheng, engaged in clandestine meetings with Chinese officials and a probe concluded she posed “a realistic and credible threat to Canada’s economic security.”

The Globe and Mail

In August, 2020, PHAC informed Dr. Qiu that her security status was suspended immediately, pending a review. “Among our serious concerns are your dealings with government agencies and government research programs of another country about which you have not been transparent with PHAC.”

Mr. Cheng received a similar note. “Among our serious concerns are your close personal and professional relationship with Xiangguo Qiu, and your awareness and lack of candour regarding your own activities and those of Xiangguo Qiu with individuals and entities of a foreign government.”

Both scientists filed appeals, or grievances, alleging, among other things, that they were the victim of racial profiling, but PHAC rejected these.

A PHAC report in October, 2020, found Dr. Qiu lied about the nature of her trips to China from Canada. In April, 2018, she said she took a personal trip to Beijing but after investigators confronted her with evidence on network drives, she acknowledged she was compensated for all trip expenses by Tianjin CanSino Biotechnology Inc.

And, regarding an October, 2018, trip to China that she had said was a personal vacation, she acknowledged after being presented with contrary evidence that the trip was paid for by Wuhan Institute for Virology and she met the organization’s director during the visit.

Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng were fired from PHAC in January, 2021.

In an April, 2020, security screening of Dr. Qiu by CSIS, it warned that if she was reinstated at the National Microbiology Lab, its preliminary assessment was, “because of her features of character, she may disclose, be induced to disclose or cause to be disclosed in an unauthorized way, classified information.”

The probe found that she had counselled a Chinese research student to apply for a visitor visa to come to Canada instead of a work permit. Because it “would take quite some time for the student to get a work permit and since the student would not be doing much in the laboratory it would be better to simply apply for a visitor visa,” she told the student in an e-mail obtained by CSIS.

An April, 2020, security screening of Dr. Qiu by CSIS reviewed her work with Chinese military researchers and quizzed her about her repeated failure to obtain collaboration work agreements at PHAC before working with foreign academics. “Ms. Qiu did not take responsibility for her security violations and instead blamed PHAC for not being clear as to what was required of her and when,” CSIS wrote.

A January, 2021, PHAC letter to Dr. Qiu explained why her security clearance was not being reinstated

“It is found that you committed serious security breaches and violated policies of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Treasury Board Policy on government security,” the letter said.

“You circumvented established policies and guidelines regarding the sharing of sensitive Information” and allowed “exchanges of sensitive information with unauthorized individuals,” it said.

“You shipped antibodies outside of the National Microbiology Laboratory and entered into collaborations without authorization, and without a material transfer or a collaborative research agreement,” it continued. “You were untruthful in interviews when describing your relationship, associations and activities with government agencies and government research and talent programs of another country,” it said.

“During the entire process, you did not express remorse or regret” and “you failed to accept responsibility for your actions and deflected blame onto PHAC.”

It concluded: “You cannot be relied upon not to abuse the trust accorded to you and to perform your assigned duties in a manner that will reflect positively on PHAC and not pose a security risk to the Government of Canada and PHAC.”

In the case of Mr. Cheng, a CSIS probe concluded he represented a “very serious and credible security danger to the Government of Canada.”

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