Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Minister of Health Mark Holland rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 29.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Canada has stopped sharing dangerous pathogens with China through its high-security infectious-disease laboratory, but other collaborations continue despite past security breaches and a warning from Canada’s spy agency of the threat Beijing poses.

Health Minister Mark Holland told reporters in Ottawa Thursday that there has not been a hard stop to all work between infectious-disease researchers at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and China.

He made the disclosure a day after he tabled explosive documents in the House of Commons that revealed scientists at the lab had engaged in clandestine meetings with China and collaborated with Chinese military researchers.

The documents show two scientists who worked at the lab and were married had provided confidential scientific information to China and were fired after a probe concluded one of them, Xiangguo Qiu, posed “a realistic and credible threat to Canada’s economic security.”

According to the documents, a Canadian Security Intelligence Service assessment also concluded her husband, Keding Cheng, represented a “very serious and credible security danger to the Government of Canada.”

Dr. Qiu “developed deep, co-operative 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.

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.

Mr. Holland said on Wednesday that the lab did not follow its own security protocols when the breaches took place. On Thursday, he said it has now changed how it operates and what work it does with China.

He said the lab has stopped sharing deadly pathogens with China because “the Chinese government is making active efforts to infiltrate our scientific community for purposes that are not for collaboration.”

“I won’t say there’s no collaboration, but the nature of that collaboration is totally different,” Mr. Holland said.

He said “lower-level interactions” may still take place between scientists at the lab, which is equipped to handle some of the world’s deadliest diseases. He said there is also still work done with China through the World Health Organization.

He was not able to clarify the type of work that has continued.

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

The Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement that the National Microbiology Lab is “not currently engaged in any bilateral research collaboration with the People’s Republic of China.”

However, the statement from spokesperson Mark Johnson said any further bilateral collaborations with the lab will only be done in accordance with the government’s new policy that prevents funding for any research that is done with scientists who work at organizations that the government has determined pose a risk to Canada’s national security.

Included in the documents released on Wednesday is a CSIS security screening that describes the People’s Republic of China as “a known security threat to Canada.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that he had instructed his national security and intelligence adviser to “look even deeper” at the situation at the Winnipeg lab and “make recommendations on how we can move forward appropriately.”

His office declined to say when his top security adviser, Nathalie Drouin, had been assigned the task or what particularly she is looking for given that Mr. Holland had said all security protocols are now in place and being followed.

Mr. Trudeau’s office also declined to say why the government is still allowing some collaboration between the lab and China.

On Parliament Hill, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said there should be no collaboration between the lab’s infectious-disease scientists and China.

He said a zero-tolerance policy is warranted because the government and spy agency documents showed that Canada’s “most sensitive lab was infiltrated by people who collaborated with the People’s Liberation Army, who did not reveal any of their ongoing partnerships with the regime in Beijing and who transferred materials from our most critical lab containing our most dangerous viruses over to Beijing.”

“I don’t think this is the kind of collaboration we want,” Mr. Poilievre said. “We should be collaborating with like-minded democracies that we can trust, not those that want to attack our interests.”

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, who previously worked to foster research collaborations with China as a leader at Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and who is now a board member of the China Strategic Risks Institute, said the government needs to impose a 10-year ban on any collaborations to ensure China sees a consequence for the security breaches.

She said the ban should apply to the entire National Microbiology Lab and that Ottawa and the provinces should conduct a full review of other collaborations done with China in all other government labs.

“This goes way beyond and is way deeper than what we were initially told,” Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said about what the documents tabled in the House revealed.

She said collaborations between China and Canadian researchers are often one-way affairs because China is very careful about who it allows in its labs and what data it allows to leave its borders.

Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said if there is no hard stop in collaborations, “China isn’t learning that there are consequences for its actions.

“What that means is they’ll just try it more and more.”

The NDP said it does not support a blanket ban on such collaboration. Instead, Leader Jagmeet Singh said collaborations with other countries “should undergo very strict and rigorous procedures to ensure that we’re not seeing any undermining of our national security.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe