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The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg on May 19, 2009.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

A special committee of MPs tasked with evaluating censored records on the firing of two scientists from Canada’s top infectious disease laboratory – researchers who worked with China ­­– says most of the information redacted from Public Health Agency of Canada documents appears to have been withheld to shield the organization from embarrassment rather than to protect national security.

The committee is recommending the majority of the documents be made public, according to a Feb. 19 letter, obtained by The Globe and Mail, that was sent to House leaders of the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois.

A source with direct knowledge of the material said the information when uncovered would show that scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng provided confidential scientific information to China. The Globe is not identifying the source who could be prosecuted under the Security of Information Act.

The two infectious-disease scientists had their security clearances revoked and were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in July, 2019. They were fired in January, 2021.

The government said it could not release documents about their dismissal for national-security reasons. The government’s unwillingness prompted a showdown that led to opposition parties voting to declare the Liberals in contempt of Parliament. The government later took then-House of Commons speaker Anthony Rota to court in order to prevent their release – a bid it dropped after the 2021 election was called.

Last year opposition parties and the Liberal government agreed to appoint the special committee of MPs to examine unredacted copies of all the related records and recommend what more could be made public. Three former judges were enlisted to weigh the release of this additional information against the risk of injury to things such as national security.

The letter from the committee determined that the majority of records from the Public Health Agency of Canada related to the firing of the scientists should be released to Canadians.

“The information appears to be mostly about protecting the organization from embarrassment for failures in policy and implementation, not legitimate national security concerns, and its release is essential to hold the Government to account,” it said.

MPs on the committee said when it came to Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents, they understood these should be “protected to a greater extent” from release but asked that other solutions to convey the information be used, such as substantive summaries.

It’s up to the government to release the documents.

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

The Globe and Mail has reported that Dr. Qiu, her husband 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.

The Globe also reported Mounties were probing whether the scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property with the investigation focused on the possibility that materials such as plasma DNA molecules, which could be used to recreate vaccines or viruses, were transferred to Chinese authorities without the approval of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

CSIS urged the removal of security clearances for the two scientists, The Globe reported, relating to their travel to China and collaboration with Chinese scientists.

The letter said the release of documents will protect the identities of Canadians and permanent residents but not the two scientists or the names and titles of officials from the People’s Republic of China.

The panel of retired judges – former Supreme Court of Canada justices Ian Binnie and Marshall Rothstein, as well as Eleanor Dawson, who sat on the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal – helped to oversee the special committee. They acted as arbiters, adjudicating any dispute about what information or documents can be made public.

In a Feb. 1, letter, the three judges said they reviewed disputed documents on Nov. 29 and also met with CSIS and Public Health Agency of Canada officials where they sought to maximize disclosure of information without compromising national security or other considerations.

After back-and-forth discussions throughout January, the panel said: “We are transmitting to you what is in our view the maximum measure of disclosure and transparency consistent with the protection of national security, national defence and other public or private interested mandated by the committee.”

The special committee comprises four MPs from the main parties – Liberal Iqra Khalid, Conservative John Williamson, New Democrat Heather McPherson and René Villemure from the Bloc Québécois – who were sworn oaths of secrecy to review all the classified documents involving the transfer of Ebola and Henipah viruses, overseen by Dr. Qiu, to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March, 2019.

One high-profile Chinese researcher, Feihu Yan of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time at 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 published between 2000 and 2021. A significant number were collaborations with Chinese scientists, and much of the research was funded by Chinese government bodies.

She and her husband lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called in to investigate. Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and antiviral therapies section at the lab, and Mr. Cheng were finally dismissed in January, 2021.

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

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

Other national-security issues include the fact that students from China were granted access 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 facility. It remains unclear how those students got security clearances to enter the lab, which is equipped to handle the world’s most dangerous viruses.

Dr. Qiu won a Governor-General’s award in 2018 for her work on Ebola.

In March, 2019, the Winnipeg lab had shipped Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan institute. PHAC later described that as an effort by Canada to “foster global collaboration.” E-mails released under access to information legislation show that Dr. Qiu played an essential role in negotiating the shipments sent to the Wuhan facility.

PHAC maintains that the couple’s dismissal was unrelated to the transfer of the viruses.

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