Years after scientists lost security clearances at top lab, there are still concerns about who has access

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says it has tightened security of its Level-4 National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg years after two scientists were escorted out over concerns about security breaches, but experts worry the back door may still be open to graduate and post-doctoral students affiliated with the University of Manitoba. 

“We had scientists from a hostile country not only potentially sharing highly problematic material … but in the process, likely, it appears China picked up key operational and procedural know-how from Canada,” said Christian Leuprecht, a security and defence expert who teaches political science and economics at the Royal Military College of Canada.

He says lax security protocols are a problem “every day at Canadian research institutions. And we are now slowly, slowly starting to change the institutional culture.”

A Level-4 facility is equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal disease, making NML one of only a handful of labs in North America capable of handling pathogens like Ebola, which require the highest level of containment. 

Many of the NML scientists also have appointments at the University of Manitoba (U of M), which means some of their students have access to the country’s highest-security infectious disease lab through joint research. That’s how researchers with connections to the Chinese government and military gained access to the lab.

U of M says it currently has no formal affiliation agreement in place between the NML and departments offering graduate studies, relying only on a policy that is meant to govern the work of adjunct professors.

Supervisors are supposed to monitor their students whenever they are in the NML, but that hasn’t always happened, as shown in the CSIS intelligence assessment of the two fired scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng. That assessment was released by the federal government last week after years of demands for transparency.

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Two leading scientists are standing by their former colleagues, a pair of researchers fired from Canada’s National Microbiology Lab, instead pointing the finger at issues inside the high-security facility itself.

‘No smoking gun’

“These scientists really were regarded as stars,” said Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He noted that “no red flags were raised” about their connections with Chinese scientists, visiting Chinese researchers or institutions in China connected to the military.

“There’s no real smoking gun in this documentation,” he said. “There’s nothing to say that one of these scientists provided China with a military pathogen or a weaponized virus or … material was stolen by visitors.”

However, Wark says it shows an attitude that scientists are above security considerations that universities and research entities have to address.

Part of the investigation looked at how restricted visitors under Qiu’s supervision shared scientific data to unauthorized people using personal email accounts and USB keys.

Wesley Wark
According to Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, ‘there’s no real smoking gun’ in the government’s report about Qiu and Cheng that shows they provided weaponized pathogens or viruses to China or that material was stolen by visitors. (CBC)

Scholars connected to China’s military gained access

The investigation found Qiu brought several post-doctoral scholars to the U of M as visiting scientists, who then gained access to the NML. One was a research assistant at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences’ Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, which studies biological technology for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

The woman, whose name is redacted from the documents, held a Chinese public affairs passport reserved for civil servants and staff of public institutions.

She was a restricted visitor at the NML and was living at Qiu and Cheng’s second home in Winnipeg. The investigation found a photo of her conducting laboratory work in her PLA uniform and her mentor was a major-general of the PLA, a top virologist at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences.

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Investigators found documents from Chinese sources suggesting that Qiu “will build a team” in Canada with the goal of benefiting Chinese science, and that China’s Level 4 lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, would contribute funds and “office conditions” so Qiu could continue “normal operation” of her Canadian-funded research at the NML.

Qiu said she was never told about any potential conflicts of interest between researchers she was bringing in through the university and her work at the NML.

According to the report, Qiu explained she didn’t know her restricted visitors were left unsupervised until the administrative investigation, but said she understood the importance of “why this should not have happened.”

When asked about collaboration with agencies and government institutions of another country, the investigation found Qiu was “evasive in responding honestly and truthfully until presented with the facts and evidence.”

For example, the investigation found she co-authored a research paper with a serving officer in the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), an organization linked to China’s military. 

An Asian woman with glasses wears a blue biocontainment suit connected to a respirator while working in a laboratory environment.
Qiu is seen working in the NML’s containment area in this undated photo. Qiu, her husband and her students were escorted out of the lab in July 2019. (CBC)

Qiu also collaborated with and sponsored other visiting scientists from the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology that worked with her at the U of M, or through her at the NML. In one case, she asked to have a colleague’s affiliation with AMMS removed from a paper. 

“This was a direct attempt to disassociate herself and the student in her charge from an outside organization,” the report said. 

Restricted visitors tried to remove vials from lab

The investigation into Qiu’s husband Cheng involved the potential breach of security policies in relation to students under his supervision, some of whom attempted to improperly remove materials from the lab.

In a February 2019 interview, Cheng said he was hosting scholars from his home province in China, with funding and collaboration with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He claimed he didn’t know researchers he supervised were removing materials from the NML, although he remembered one trying to take out two Styrofoam containers.

That same month, investigators interviewed a technician who’d been a visiting researcher at the U of M since February 2018, working under Qiu. He said he conducted experiments at the NML related to the Ebola virus, DNA and protein. He also said that the Level-4 lab in China was trying to get the Ebola virus. 

During the interview, the technician admitted to attempting to remove vials from the NML on Oct. 12, 2018, to bring them to the U of M lab. This was backed up by an NML security commissionaire, who told investigators the technician, a restricted visitor (RV) with limited security clearance, was unescorted by his supervisor. 

In another interview in December 2019, Cheng stated that he “later learned the test tubes came from Dr. Xiangguo Qiu’s lab and the RV had an urgent need for the test tubes at the University of Manitoba because they work almost every weekend.”

Repeated attempts to reach Qiu and Cheng for comment have been unsuccessful.

Threat of Chinese influence

After tabling the documents from the investigation in Parliament on Wednesday, Health Minister Mark Holland told reporters the threat of China’s influence wasn’t as well known in 2019. 

He said while he did think security protocols were lax and there wasn’t enough understanding about the threat of foreign interference, he did believe “an earnest effort was made to adhere to those policies, but not with the rigour that was required.”

Christian Leuprecht
Security and defence expert Christian Leuprecht says lax security protocols are a problem at Canadian research institutions. (Submitted by Christian Leuprecht)

Security expert Christian Leuprecht doesn’t buy that. 

He says that when Qiu and Cheng were escorted from the lab in 2019, it was already well known that China was systematically infiltrating research and government institutions and universities around the world, so it was surprising that the government hadn’t doubled down on security at those facilities.

“And it is even more surprising that subsequently it took the government five years to come out with a research, security strategy and policy for research institutions,” he said.

Improved security protocols

Wesley Wark believes security protocols and policies protecting intellectual property at universities and research institutions have improved since 2019 because everyone is taking the issue more seriously. 

In response to questions about its security protocols from CBC News, the University of Manitoba’s Office of Research Services said it doesn’t do formal security screening on registered students or visiting students of other institutions, but that it will comply with a new federal policy on sensitive technology research and affiliations coming into effect May 1. 

The university does conduct a “research security check” on grants involving collaboration with countries outside the Five Eyes intelligence alliance made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S., but doesn’t have a “restricted foreign universities list.” It says it tries to avoid “bias, racial profiling or unfair targeting” when assessing international partnerships.

The U of M says it aims to “facilitate open science and systematically assess and mitigate risks to protect researchers and their research from harm, theft and foreign interference.”

PHAC said it has improved security at the NML as a result of this case.

All guest researchers, students and employees go through a security screening process and must adhere to other security protocols, procedures and policies.

Visitors must be escorted by someone with the appropriate clearance at all times. Anyone without that clearance can’t get into areas of the NML that hold sensitive information and assets.

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