The Conservatives are asking the House of Commons to compel the Public Health Agency of Canada to turn over hundreds of pages of documents after the organization’s president repeatedly refused to disclose why two scientists were fired from the country’s highest-security infectious-disease lab earlier this year.
The Official Opposition is putting a motion up for debate on Tuesday that would order the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to release uncensored copies of all records relating to the matter to House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota within 48 hours.
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. The pair were removed from the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg in July, 2019, after their security clearances were revoked.
The motion, sponsored by Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, calls for the Commons law clerk to review the documents and redact information that could reasonably be expected to be injurious to national security or a continuing criminal investigation before making it public. It also calls for the clerk to later hold a confidential meeting with MPs on the Canada-China committee to reveal what was removed from the records – information they could use to inform any recommendations or report on the matter.
MPs on the Canada-China committee have twice asked PHAC to disclose all documents, but Mr. Chong said the agency is still withholding hundreds of pages. The committee adopted motions on March 31 and on May 10 asking the agency to release the remaining records. It produced nearly 20 additional pages after the most recent request, but refuses to divulge the rest.
“The Public Health Agency of Canada remains obligated to safeguard certain sensitive information, particularly in the context of national security and in relation to employee privacy,” Mr. Stewart wrote in a May 20 letter to the Canada-China committee.
A vote on the Commons motion will take place on Wednesday. It will require the support of the Bloc Québécois and NDP to pass. Mr. Chong could not say whether these parties will support it.
Mr. Chong said he believes MPs have the authority to compel the production of information, even that of a personal nature, and that previous Speaker’s rulings have established the Commons and its committees have the absolute right to unredacted government documents.
“We don’t know why Dr. Qiu and Dr. Cheng were fired. There are all sorts of unanswered questions here, and we have a responsibility to ensure these kinds of failures are not repeated in the future,” Mr. Chong said.
“We’ve given the government ample opportunity to comply and we have laid out a responsible procedure for obtaining the information we’re seeking.”
The Globe and Mail reported in May that Canada’s spy agency urged the removal of security clearances for the two scientists because of national-security concerns.
Dr. Qiu, who headed the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies Section, and her biologist husband worked in the special pathogens section of the Winnipeg lab, a facility equipped to handle some of the world’s deadliest diseases. Four months before the couple was expelled from the lab, it had shipped Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Virology Institute, part of what the PHAC later described as an effort by this country to “foster global collaboration.”
The Globe reported the Canadian Security Intelligence Service began raising alarms about Dr. Qiu after it grew concerned about the nature of information that was being passed to the Wuhan lab. A source said CSIS was focused on the people Dr. Qiu was talking to in China and intellectual property that may have been given to Chinese authorities.
Little is publicly known about the reasons for the pair’s dismissal, although the RCMP are investigating. PHAC has repeatedly said their removal from the Winnipeg lab was not connected to the shipment of the two viruses.
The documents MPs have been seeking include details of the virus samples sent to the Wuhan facility in 2019.
In March, PHAC’s Mr. Stewart linked the departure of the scientists to a “number of review processes” initiated by the federal agency in 2018, “relating to possible breaches of security protocols” at NML.
The Globe also reported that scientists at the lab, including the couple, were collaborating with Chinese military researchers to study and conduct experiments on deadly pathogens such as Ebola, Lassa fever and Rift Valley fever.
The Globe reported that one of the Chinese researchers, Feihu Yan, from the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time at the Winnipeg lab.
Federal department of Health spokesman Eric Morrissette told The Globe in a statement that collaboration with institutions outside of Canada is crucial to advancing public-health research and science aimed at improving public health on a global scale.
PHAC said no new collaborations on research projects have been initiated with China, and all co-operation with the Wuhan Institute ended in the summer of 2019, when the couple’s security clearances were revoked.
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