A high-ranking officer in the People’s Liberation Army, recently lauded by President Xi Jinping for developing a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine, collaborated on Ebola research with one of the scientists who was later fired from Canada’s high-security infectious disease laboratory in Winnipeg.
The joint research conducted by Major-General Chen Wei and former Canadian government lab scientist Xiangguo Qiu indicates that co-operation between the Chinese military and scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) went much higher than was previously known. The People’s Liberation Army is the military wing of China’s ruling Communist Party.
Maj.-Gen. Chen and Dr. Qiu, who until recently headed the vaccine development and antiviral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, collaborated on two scientific papers on Ebola, in 2016 and 2020.
Those papers did not identify Maj.-Gen. Chen as a high-ranking officer and the Chinese military’s top epidemiologist and virologist. Instead, she is identified as Wei Chen, who held a PHD and worked at the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, part of the Academy of Military Science.
The Globe and Mail has confirmed that Wei Chen and Maj.-Gen. Chen are the same person. Author Elaine Dewar first reported the links between Dr. Qiu and Maj.-Gen. Chen in her recent book, On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years: An investigation.
The Globe asked the Public Health Agency of Canada if it is standard practice for scientists at the NML to work with high-level military medical researchers in China.
“While the NML does not have institutional agreements with the Chinese military, Canada’s scientists have collaborated with Chinese scientists to contribute to the global public health fight against deadly diseases, such as Ebola,” PHAC spokesperson Anne Génier said in a statement Tuesday. “These collaborations have yielded vaccine and treatment candidates for diseases, as documented in peer-reviewed journals.”
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Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says the People’s Liberation Army is unique among the militaries of great powers today because it is loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, not the constitution or duly elected government.
“Research for the sake of scientific inquiry is not a part of the mission of the People’s Liberation Army and its scientific or other employees,” he said. “Scientific and other research being carried out by the PLA are meant first and foremost to support the missions of the People’s Liberation Army in protecting state security.”
Last week, PHAC would not say whether Maj.-Gen. Chen had ever visited the Winnipeg lab, a Level 4 facility equipped to handle the world’s deadliest diseases. The agency said it does not release visitor records and that privacy laws prevent it from saying whether Maj.-Gen. Chen had been there.
“However, all visitors including researchers collaborating with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) must adhere to Government of Canada and PHAC security protocols, procedures and policies and must be escorted by an employee with a secret clearance at all times,” Health Department spokesman Mark Johnson said.
Ward Elcock, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said Canada should not allow this type of collaboration.
“If I was the director of CSIS at the time and I had that information in front of me – would it have rung an alarm bell for me? Absolutely,” he said.
CSIS had no comment on the matter, citing an ongoing RCMP investigation.
Dr. Qiu and her husband, Keding Chang, were fired from their positions at the NML in January.
The couple and an unknown number of Dr. Qiu’s students had their security clearances revoked in July, 2019, and were escorted from the facility.
Four months earlier, the NML shipped Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, a transfer overseen by Dr. Qiu.
The Globe has reported that the RCMP are investigating whether the two dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China, including to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In June, the federal government took House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to court to prevent the release of documents to MPs that could offer insight into why the couple were fired. The government dropped the court quest last month.
In September, 2020. Maj.-Gen. Chen was commended by Mr. Xi at a ceremony in Beijing for her contribution to China’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine, developed by CanSino Biologics Inc., a military-backed institute.
CanSino was given a licence by Canada’s National Research Council last year to use a Canadian biological product as part of an effort to jointly develop a vaccine. The plan was for a Halifax research team to work with CanSino to run the first Canadian clinical trials. China later reneged on the deal and blocked vaccine shipments to Canada.
Maj.-Gen. Chen is also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a prestigious advisory body to Beijing’s top leadership.
Her scientific work with Dr. Qiu focused on Ebola research. Chinese scientists from the Academy of Military Science and researchers from the NML contributed to the papers.
Three NML scientists who participated in the two Ebola research projects told The Globe they had no idea that Wei Chen was a major-general and China’s top virologist. They said Dr. Qiu did not share information with them about her collaborations with Chinese scientists. The Globe is not identifying the NML scientists, who said the Public Health Agency of Canada has forbidden them from talking to the media about the dismissal of Dr. Qiu and her husband.
Gary Kobinger, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist who worked at the NML with Dr. Qiu until 2016, said he wasn’t aware of the scientific collaboration between the Winnipeg lab researchers and the Chinese officer. “I didn’t know about that woman, who is definitely very high in the Chinese military structure.”
He said scientists are sometimes oblivious to the affiliations of other scientists with whom they conduct research.
“For scientists, the main focus, if not the only focus, is science,” Dr. Kobinger said. “Scientists don’t pay attention to military pedigree or political positions or even beliefs or affiliation.
“That said, maybe it’s something that should change … maybe more scientists should be a bit more careful or attentive to those potential issues because there are clearly perception issues.”
Dr. Kobinger shared a 2018 Governor-General’s Award with Dr. Qiu for groundbreaking research on Ebola before becoming director of the Research Centre on Infectious Diseases at Laval University. He was recently appointed director of the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas.
Retired lieutenant-general Michael Day, who led the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command and was the chief strategic planner for the future of the Canadian Armed Forces, said it doesn’t appear PHAC had proper security measures in place.
“Why is it that our only national Level 4 lab does not work through proper security protocols and actively monitor what was going on there, given the consequences of going astray?” he said. “The fact that we have failed to properly vet scientists who go in there is mind-boggling.”
Mr. Elcock said federal health officials may not have been alarmed by this collaboration in 2016 because it was taking place in a different international environment – before relations between the West and China soured. “China is what it is. It’s an authoritarian state. We’re not at war with China, but China is not our friend. Why we would share this kind of sensitive information with the Chinese, I don’t know.”
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