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A Winnipeg home belonging to Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng on June 1.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

A year and a half after two Canadian scientists were fired from Ottawa’s top-security infectious-disease laboratory over alleged national security breaches, it is still unclear whether the couple are now in China or living at an undisclosed location in Canada.

The RCMP are conducting a criminal investigation into allegations related to their time at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

The Liberal government has said only that the firing was related to sensitive national-security matters. It is preparing to provide secret documents about their dismissal to a special committee.

In June of last year, The Globe reported that Xiangguo Qiu, a former head of a virology program at the laboratory, and her biologist husband, Keding Cheng, were no longer living at their home in Winnipeg.

Last week, The Globe returned to properties they own in Winnipeg but did not find the couple, who lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and were dismissed from their jobs in January, 2021.

They have not publicly commented on why they were dismissed. Nor has Dr. Qiu responded to recent questions from The Globe about whether their dismissal was related to the transfer of highly infectious viruses to China’s Wuhan Virology Institute or sharing of scientific data with Chinese Communist Party officials.

The couple own two homes in Winnipeg, including a rental property. They also own a property in cottage country in Gimli, Man. Their two sons live in the principal residence, valued at $1.2-million.

The sons would not talk to the media. Another family rents the second residence, valued at $524,000, but said they do not know where the scientists are. Two neighbours approached by The Globe would not provide their names, but said they thought the couple were in China.

A former colleague of the couple said it’s his understanding that they own a home in China. He did not know where. The Globe is not identifying the colleague, who did not want to speak publicly about his conversations with Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng.

RCMP Sergeant Paul Manaigre would not say if the Mounties know the couple’s location, but said the criminal investigation continues.

Exactly why the two scientists were fired has been a contentious political issue in Parliament. At first, the government would not disclose any information about the reasons, and even took House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to court last year for trying to obtain documents.

The government dropped the court challenge during the 2021 election campaign, and has since relented about providing all secret documents to a special committee.

Government House Leader Mark Holland told The Globe that efforts are under way to find three former senior judges to act as arbiters for any disputes among MPs on the special committee about what information could be released to the public. The Liberals and NDP struck a deal in April to set up the committee with a panel of three former judges. The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois refused to join the committee, saying they want the law clerk and not former judges to decide what could be released.

“We are moving forward to try to select the independent judges. We want to get [committee] up and running as soon as possible,” Mr. Holland said. “We want to get moving on this.”

Four months before the couple was expelled from the lab, access-to-information documents show, Dr. Qiu played a role in shipping two exceptionally virulent viruses – Ebola and Henipah – to China’s Wuhan facility.

Although the Public Health Agency of Canada has said all protocols were followed, documents show that the shipments lacked a standard material-transfer agreement that spelled out intellectual-property rights.

Other troubling national-security issues involve the couple’s work with Chinese military scientists and access granted to students from China to the high-security lab.

Dr. Qiu was able to bring graduate and postgraduate students from China who were studying at the University of Manitoba into the lab. It remains unclear how those students got the security clearance to enter the lab, which is equipped to handle the world’s most dangerous viruses.

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 of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time with the Winnipeg lab. Dr. Qiu also collaborated on Ebola research with Major-General Chen Wei, the Chinese military’s top epidemiologist and virologist.

Dr. Qiu’s name appears as a co-author on more than 120 scientific research papers between 2000 and 2021.

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

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