The federal Conservatives are demanding answers from the Liberals after news a researcher at the National Microbiology Laboratory, who has links to China, worked in Winnipeg with a Chinese military officer.
In July 2019, renowned Ebola researcher Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Chang, were removed from the Arlington Street lab and later terminated by the Public Health Agency of Canada, which has only ever cited an "administrative matter" involving "possible policy breaches."
The RCMP is investigating Qiu and Chang but neither has been charged.
Qiu has received high-profile awards for her key role in developing an Ebola vaccine at the Winnipeg lab.
Months before her ouster, Qiu had sent samples of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Sources in Winnipeg have told the Free Press this was done without adequate paperwork, an allegation Public Health has denied.
The lack of a clear explanation has fuelled conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus, which surfaced in late 2019 in Wuhan, but officials have found no credible link with the Chinese city’s lab.
Last month, journalist Elaine Dewar revealed Qiu had worked with Major-Gen. Chen Wei, who is part of the People’s Liberation Army, on Ebola research.
Dewar’s book, On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years: an Investigation, noted the research identified Chen as a researcher with a Chinese agency linked to the military, but did not specify she was the military’s most senior virologist.
Media reported on this connection this month, prompting the federal Conservatives to claim the Liberals are covering up the lab’s work with the Chinese military.
In a statement, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it regularly works with researchers from abroad, and visitors must always be escorted by an employee who has security clearance.
"While the NML does not have institutional agreements with the Chinese military, Canada’s scientists have collaborated with Chinese scientists to contribute to the global public health fight against deadly diseases, such as Ebola," an agency spokesperson told the Free Press in an emailed statement.
"These collaborations have yielded vaccine and treatment candidates for diseases, as documented in peer-reviewed journals."
The Conservatives said the Liberals must reveal several details on the matter to Canadians, including who approved co-operation between the scientists and the Chinese military, as well as whether any intellectual property was passed on to China.
"This is fundamentally a question of trust. It’s increasingly clear that (Liberal Leader) Justin Trudeau is covering up evidence that China’s military infiltrated our most sensitive, top-level government lab," the Tories allege in a news release.
The party did not directly respond to questions Friday from the Free Press, instead directing a reporter to a series of past news releases.
In an email, a Liberal spokesperson called the Conservative claims "disappointing."
"We take national security very seriously, and it is disappointing that the Conservatives continue to play games with Canadians’ safety and security. This past spring, the requested documents were provided to the Canada-China committee with protections in place for privacy and national security. The Liberal government then went further and provided unredacted documents to the only committee of parliamentarians that has the security clearance and adequate safety protocols," Brook Simpson said in an emailed statement.
In May, the Globe and Mail reported the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had first tipped off Public Health about Qiu and her husband, raising concerns about their contacts in China and the possible transfer of intellectual property.
The Globe, which did not name its sources, reported Public Health’s decision to pull the couple’s security clearance came at the suggestion of CSIS.
This spring, members of Parliament pushed Public Health to be more open about why the two scientists were let go, with the agency insisting for months it cannot discuss personnel matters.
Ottawa had only provided highly censored documents, and eventually said disclosing the records could endanger national security. Opposition parties rejected the Liberals’ request to have the documents shared with a panel of MPs approved by the prime minister.
The spat escalated to an unprecedented court case, in which the Speaker of the House of Commons argued the government was violating the supremacy of Parliament by withholding documents. The Speaker withdrew that case as the election was called in August.
Qiu could not be reached for comment Friday.
— with files from Joyanne Pursaga