A parliamentary committee is threatening to escalate a months-long dispute with the Public Health Agency of Canada after the organization’s president repeatedly refused to disclose why two scientists were fired from Canada’s highest-security infectious-disease lab earlier this year
Iain Stewart, the head of PHAC, which has taken a leading role in the fight against COVID-19, has repeatedly declined to divulge to the House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were fired in January. Their security clearances were also revoked.
Back in July, 2019, the pair were escorted from the Winnipeg National Microbiology Laboratory, a Level 4 facility equipped to handle some of the world’s deadliest diseases. Four months earlier, the Winnipeg lab shipped Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
On Monday, members of the Canada-China committee adopted a motion demanding within 10 days that unredacted copies of all PHAC records on the matter be turned over to the House law clerk, who would first review them. Under their proposal, the committee would then meet in secret to determine what could then be released publicly.
MPs also voted to send the matter to the Commons should the Public Health Agency fail to deliver what they are seeking. The Commons would then have the opportunity to put its full weight behind a disclosure order.
When the committee last ordered PHAC to turn over documents related to the pair’s dismissal, and to the transfer of these viruses, the agency heavily censored the records before relinquishing them. PHAC says the firing of the two staff is unrelated to the virus transfer to Wuhan.
Mr. Stewart told MPs Monday that the transfer was part of an effort by Canada to “foster global collaboration.”
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong told Mr. Stewart that he believes Canadian law gives Members of Parliament the authority to compel the production of information, even that of a personal nature.
Garnett Genuis, Conservative human-rights critic, recalled a 2010 ruling by former Commons speaker Peter Milliken that found the Harper government had breached parliamentary privilege by refusing to produce uncensored documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees. The documents were eventually shared with a select group of parliamentarians.
PHAC’s Mr. Stewart said he believes he is forbidden from divulging records that would reveal “personal information, investigations or security matters.” He told MPs that he was not being unco-operative but was complying with legal advice he had been given. “We’re bound by law to keep confidential information confidential.”
He said the RCMP are investigating this matter and questions should be directed to the Mounties.
Bloc Québécois foreign-affairs critic Stéphane Bergeron told Mr. Stewart that he was ignoring the will of parliamentarians.
“You have not given us unredacted documents and nor have you answered the fundamental questions we have been putting forward … from the very outset. What leads you to think that you, PHAC, is authorized to not respond to requests from parliamentarians?”
Robert Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, took pains to distance the subject in dispute from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“This has nothing to do with coronavirus,” Mr. Oliphant told the committee.
He also cautioned the Public Health Agency to review the legal advice it is getting.
“I think you need a second opinion. I think the Justice Department is not giving you the best advice,” he said.
Dr. Qiu was head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies section in the Special Pathogens program at the Winnipeg lab.
In March, Mr. Stewart linked the departure of the scientists to a “number of review processes” initiated by PHAC in 2018, “relating to possible breaches of security protocols” at the National Microbiology Laboratory.
With reports from The Canadian Press