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Xiangguo Qiu, left, and her husband Keding Cheng, are infectious disease scientists formerly with Canada’s top-secret laboratory in Winnipeg who collaborated with researchers in China.Handout cleared

One of two fired scientists at the centre of an RCMP investigation into a massive security breach at Canada’s top infectious-disease laboratory in Winnipeg is working in China and collaborating with researchers from the People’s Liberation Army.

The Globe and Mail has learned that Xiangguo Qiu has been conducting research with Chinese military scientists and other virology researchers, including at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, on antibodies for coronavirus and the deadly Ebola and Nipah viruses.

The Globe was unable to find any information on her biologist husband, Keding Cheng, who is believed to be with her in China. The two infectious-disease scientists were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in July, 2019, and later had their security clearances revoked. They were fired in January, 2021.

They have been under an RCMP national-security investigation since May, 2019.

Declassified documents tabled in the House of Commons on Feb. 28 show the couple had provided confidential scientific information to China and posed a credible security threat to the country, according to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The Globe found that Dr. Qiu’s name appears on four Chinese patent filings since 2020, two with the Wuhan Institute of Virology – whose work on bat coronaviruses has placed it at the centre of concerns that it played a role in the spread of COVID-19 – and two with the University of Science and Technology of China, or USTC. The patents relate to antibodies against Nipah virus and work related to nanobodies, including against coronaviruses.

The RCMP declined to discuss the whereabouts of the couple and whether their move back to China has affected the national-security investigation. Living in China places them beyond the reach of Canadian authorities.

But former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson said he hopes charges will be laid even if Mountie investigators are unable to talk to the couple.

“The only thing you are missing is an interview with the person, but if they are out of the country, you can’t do it. There is no problem charging them. The problem is getting them back to face the charges,” Mr. Paulson said. “The federal Crown might have some reservations about charging them knowing there is no prospect of them showing up, but I think it is in the public interest that they be charged.”

Dr. Qiu returned to China despite it being under a COVID-19 travel lockdown for three years until January, 2023. As well, China doesn’t allow dual citizenship and, under normal circumstances, a Chinese national who has obtained Canadian citizenship is not allowed to retain their Chinese citizenship.

National-security and scientific experts say Dr. Qiu would be of high value to China.

“It’s very likely that she received quite preferential treatment in China on the basis that she’s proven herself. She’s done a very good job for the government of China,” said Brendan Walker-Munro, senior research fellow at Australia’s University of Queensland Law School. “She’s promoted their interests abroad. She’s returned information that is credibly useful to China and to its ongoing research.”

Andrew Coyne: Will anyone ever be held to account for China’s infiltration of the Winnipeg microbiology lab? Don’t make me laugh

Documents reviewed by The Globe show that Dr. Qiu is most closely aligned with the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei. In March, 2023, a document posted by a Chinese pharmaceutical company listed Dr. Qiu as second amongst “major completion personnel” on a project awarded by the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association for study related to an anti-Ebola virus therapeutic antibody. Most of the other completion personnel were associated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

USTC was founded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and initially established to build up Chinese scientific expertise useful to the military, which at the time was pursuing technology to build satellites, intercontinental ballistic missiles and atomic bombs. The university has continued to maintain close military ties.

The document says Dr. Qiu works for USTC. Jin Tengchuan, the principal investigator at the Laboratory of Structural Immunology at USTC, lists her as a co-inventor on a patent. Mr. Jin did not respond to requests for comment.

A person who answered the phone at USTC told The Globe, “I don’t have any information about this teacher.”

In 2012, USTC signed a strategic co-operation agreement with the Army Engineering University of the People’s Liberation Army, designed to strengthen research on cutting-edge technology useful for communications, weaponry and other national-defence priorities.

Dr. Qiu is also listed as a 2019 doctoral supervisor for students studying virology at Hebei Medical University.

“Well, that makes me wonder what circumstances she was under when she emigrated to Canada. Why did she come?” asked Earl Brown, a professor emeritus of biochemistry, microbiology and immunology at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of medicine who has worked extensively in China in the past. “People leave for more freedom from China, or to make more money. But China keeps tabs on most people so I am not sure if she came over to infiltrate or whether she came and the infiltration happened later through contact with China.”

It may be impossible to answer that question. Three former colleagues at the National Microbiolgy Lab have indicated that Dr. Qiu and her husband were diligent and pleasant to deal with, but largely kept to themselves outside of work. They say Dr. Qiu was a brilliant scientist with a strong work ethic, although her English was weak. The Globe is not identifying the three who did not want to be named.

Dr. Qiu is a medical doctor from Tianjin, China, who came to Canada for graduate studies in 1996. She started at the University of Manitoba, but began working at the national lab as a research scientist in 2006, working her way up to become head of the vaccine development and antiviral therapies section in the National Microbiology Laboratory’s special pathogens program.

She was also part of the team that helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016.

Over a period of 13 months, though, the Chinese-Canadian microbiologist and her biologist husband’s lives were turned upside down.

She went from being feted at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall with a Governor-General’s Award in May, 2018, to being locked out of the Winnipeg lab in July, 2019 – the high-security facility where she had made her name as a scientist in Canada. By January, 2021, she and Mr. Cheng were fired.

Last month, after being pressed into explaining what happened, the Canadian government finally disclosed the reasons for this extraordinary dismissal: CSIS found the pair had lied about and hid their co-operation with China from Ottawa.

A big question remains following their departure: Why would Dr. Qiu risk her career, including the stature associated with developing an Ebola treatment, for China?

“My sense is this was part of a larger strategy by China to get access to our innovation system,” said Filippa Lentzos, an associate professor of science and international security at King’s College London. “It was a way for them to to find out what was going on in Canada’s premier lab.”

Initially trained as a medical doctor, Dr. Qiu graduated in 1985 from Hebei University in the coastal city of Tianjin, which lies southeast of Beijing. Dr. Qiu went on to obtain her master of science degree in immunology at Tianjin Medical University in 1990.

Her career at Canada’s top infectious disease lab in Winnipeg began in 2003, only four years after Ottawa opened this biosafety level 4 facility at the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health.

Over time, she built up a reputation for academic collaboration, particularly with China. It was welcomed by management who felt her work was helping build a name internationally for the National Microbiology Lab.

By the time Canadian officials intervened in 2018 and began investigating, documents show, Dr. Qiu was running 44 separate projects at the Winnipeg lab, an uncommonly large workload.

Her work with former colleague and microbiologist Gary Kobinger vaulted Dr. Qiu into the international spotlight. The pair developed a treatment for Ebola, one that in its first human application led to the full recovery of 27 patients with the infection during a 2014 outbreak in Liberia.

Mr. Kobinger’s career continued to soar and he is now director of the Galveston National Laboratory, a renowned biosafety level 4 facility in Texas. In 2022, he told The Globe that it was “heartbreaking” to see what had happened to his colleague. He declined to speak for this article.

“She had lost a lot of weight with all the stress. She was so convinced that this was all a misunderstanding … and she would go back to her job,” he said in 2022. “ Her career has been destroyed with all this. She was one of the top female Canadian scientists of virology and Canada has lost that.”

It was the CSIS probe that found some of the most damning information about Dr. Qiu’s career with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

The security agency said in a June 30, 2020, report that 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.”

That report by CSIS – among the more than 600 pages of records documenting the investigation into Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng – found evidence her burgeoning collaboration with China was being hidden. For instance, CSIS found she presented a scientific paper on Ebola antibodies at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on March 31, 2017, but the institute’s website didn’t mention her as a presenter while dedicating web pages to other presenters, their photos and their presentations. Travel approvals from her bosses at PHAC for that period only included approval for travel to a different symposium in Beijing. “The service is not aware of any PHAC-approved travel for Ms. Qiu to Wuhan during this period,” the CSIS report said.

The spy service found multiple unfinalized applications on her computers to enroll Dr. Qiu in Chinese talent-recruitment programs – initiatives that recruit experts from Western universities. She had been approved by PHAC to provide training at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the fall of 2017, but it appears her Canadian managers were unaware of her interest in signing onto these Chinese recruitment programs that can provide tens of thousands of dollars annually in compensation and research funding.

CSIS found a discussion with Wuhan Institute of Virology employees that said the Chinese institute’s leaders believed her talent-program application was “very important for our future development.” One program would have seen her work at the Wuhan Institute for two months annually over three years – a program that CSIS said provides up to $1-million in research subsidies. The application cites the Wuhan Institute describing Dr. Qiu as “the only highly experienced Chinese expert available internationally who is still fighting on the frontlines in a P4 laboratory,” a reference to the National Microbiology Lab.

The enrolment application stipulated she would build China’s “biosecurity platform for new and potent infectious disease research” and achieve “leading status internationally in the area of BSL4 research.” All intellectual property generated from this talent program contract would belong to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it said.

Even as she was working on her talent-program application, Dr. Qiu arranged for a Wuhan Institute of Virology employee to work under her as a visiting researcher at Canada’s National Microbiology Lab. This individual, according to CSIS, was involved in her talent-program application and in January, 2018, described the document as being ready, “subject to signature.”

Investigators say Dr. Qiu lied about the talent-program applications. “With respect to applying to external talent programs, during the security interview, Dr. Qiu indicated that she herself never filled out an application, that any and all applications were filled out by others and finally that her information and photograph were inserted without her knowledge,” investigators said.

“In one case, after being presented with evidence from her electronic accounts, Dr. Qiu acknowledged that she knew about the application but maintained that she herself had no part in applying,” the report said. Later, it added: “These are not credible explanations as investigators know this to be untrue based on the electronic content of Dr. Qiu’s e-mail exchanges on this topic with individuals of PRC [People’s Republic of China].”

CSIS also learned she was in the process of filling out an application for another talent program at the Kunming Institute of Zoology.

CSIS also found an unfinalized employment agreement for Dr. Qiu to work with Hebei Medical University that would include $1.2-million in research funding and $15,000 a month in compensation as well as $30,000 per year for leading laboratory operations remotely.

Dr. Qiu travelled to China in October, 2018, but CSIS found she did not report attending a biosafety workshop at the Wuhan Institute. “Ms. Qiu accepted, however according to travel expenses reported to PHAC, this workshop was not reported amongst other conferences that Ms. Qiu did report attending in the PRC.”

She was also confronted by CSIS about her collaboration with Major General Chen Wei, a high-ranking People’s Liberation Army officer lauded by President Xi Jinping for her involvement with China’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine, developed by CanSino Biologics Inc., a military-backed institute.

She stated that she did not know Maj.-Gen. Chen was involved in bioweapons research. “I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know,” she told CSIS. When asked if she thought it would be important to do background checks on people she collaborates with on deadly pathogens, Dr. Qiu replied: “Well, I dunno, I guess. Before I never thought about it.”

Property records show Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng co-own two houses in Winnipeg’s South Pointe neighbourhood, a wealthy suburban area surrounded by parks and interconnecting creeks, about a 30-minute drive from the city’s downtown. They also own an undeveloped property in cottage country in Gimli, Man. They are listed as co-owners as of a title search March 6.

Their sons had been living in the larger of the two homes, while they rented the other house in Winnipeg. But next-door neighbours, who are hesitant to speak to the media or provide their names, say they have not seen the sons there since at least December.

Security cameras are spread across the principal residence, a three-floor house valued at over $1.2-million. No one answered the door when The Globe visited the property last week, though it appeared someone was inside.

A few streets away, at Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng’s other house in the area, valued at $524,000, the tenants – a middle-aged couple, who would not provide their names – told The Globe they do not know the whereabouts of their landlords.

In a brief exchange at their doorstep on Friday, they said they have spoken to the RCMP and local police recently, and that they are frustrated with people who keep showing up to their home.

The tenants said they pay their monthly rent by e-transfer to the landlords. But when asked for the landlords’ contact information, they would not provide those details.

The tenants said they have not messaged or heard from Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng. They said the scientists’ son lives in the area, though would not say when they last spoke with him.

With reports from Temur Durrani in Winnipeg and Stephanie Chambers in Toronto

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that RCMP have been investigating the scientists since 2021. They have been investigating since May, 2019. This version has been updated.

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