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The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg on Feb. 28.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

A top Public Health Agency of Canada official says there was no reason to discipline anyone other than two fired scientists for security breaches at the country’s only infectious-disease facility and these lapses have not harmed the reputation of the National Microbiology Laboratory.

Heather Jeffrey, president of PHAC, was grilled Friday by MPs on the Canada-China Committee about weak security measures at the Winnipeg lab that enabled Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng to pass on confidential scientific information to China and allowed military scientists and students from China into the Level 4 lab.

Despite the serious breaches and the fact that the two scientists have fled to China while the RCMP investigation continues, Ms. Jeffrey insisted the lab’s reputation has not been tarnished.

“Our partners internationally also face similar threats of foreign interference,” she said. “So no, I don’t believe the lab’s reputation suffered, given the actions that we took and given the strengthening of the security protocols since that time.”

She blamed all the breaches on the two scientists, saying they were fired after a Canadian Security Intelligence Service probe found they engaged in clandestine meetings with Chinese officials.

CSIS discovered that Dr. Qiu was associated with multiple talent-recruitment programs run by Chinese authorities. Investigators concluded that she posed “a realistic and credible threat to Canada’s economic security,” while Mr. Cheng posed “a very serious and credible security danger to the government of Canada.”

The couple were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in July, 2019, and later had their security clearances revoked. They were fired in January, 2021.

Ms. Jeffrey would not say whether she regarded Dr. Qiu and her husband as agents of China: “They were Canadian citizens and long-standing employees of the lab and respected in their field.”

The Globe and Mail revealed in March that the pair are now working in China and that Dr. Qiu is collaborating with researchers from the People’s Liberation Army. The couple are using the pseudonyms Sandra Chiu and Kaiting Cheng, conducting research at prestigious institutions in China and alongside some of that country’s most noted scientists.

Opposition MPs questioned how it was the couple were able to bring in a People’s Liberation Army scientist and gave access to the Winnipeg lab to students from China – and yet no one else was fired.

“Where there any consequences for those that were directly responsible for these mistakes?” Bloc Québécois MP René Villemure asked. “Was there any incompetence in the management of the agency?”

“The individuals who hid their activities and undertook clandestine collaboration have been terminated, fired,” Ms. Jeffrey replied, blaming the security fiasco on Dr. Qiu and Mr. Cheng. “Those were the disciplinary actions that were taken.”

“You are saying there was some instances but it was nobody’s fault. We implemented some policies. It’s not that big a deal,” Mr. Villemure said. “You are giving the impression that nothing happened, which is quite shocking.”

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith wondered how it was possible that PHAC officials and Dr. Qiu could approve the transfer of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in March, 2019. That took place after the agency had hired a private security company to investigate a patent she had shared with China’s Academy of Military Science.

“How could there possibly be no red flags,” he asked.

Guillaume Poliquin, vice-president at the National Microbiology Laboratory, said they couldn’t take action because of a continuing investigation.

It was only after CSIS got deeply involved that PHAC learned the full scope of the couple’s collaboration with China, Ms. Jeffrey told the committee.

Mr. Erskine-Smith also asked how PHAC could be confident that there were no unauthorized shipments of pathogens when investigators found records of mislabelled shipments.

“We have a very rigorous procedure and audit to account for all the pathogens and toxins,” Ms. Jeffrey said. “We are 100-per-cent sure that there were not unauthorized removals of high concentrate toxins or pathogens at any time.”

Ms. Jeffrey said PHAC has tightened security controls, enhanced surveillance, put in strict protocols for shipping of pathogens and added new procedures on student hiring after the two scientists were fired. In addition, the high-security lab has imposed tougher measures around documentation and verification of infectious materials, including collaborative research agreements, she said.

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