By Moira Warburton
TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s national police force said on Monday it is investigating a referral by the country’s Public Health Agency over “possible policy breaches” at its National Microbiology Lab, whose work includes research on the most dangerous human and animal pathogens, such as Ebola.
“We can confirm that we have received a referral from the Public Health Agency of Canada,” Julie Courchaine, spokeswoman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), said in a statement. “We will not speculate on the potential outcome of the investigation. In order to maintain the integrity of the investigative process, we have no further comment at this time.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said it advised the RCMP of the “possible policy breaches” in late May. The agency declined to provide any specifics, saying only that it is “looking into an administrative matter” at the lab and “taking steps to resolve it expeditiously.”
CBC News on Sunday reported that Xiangguo Qiu, a Chinese-educated doctor who is head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies section in the Special Pathogens Program at the lab, was escorted out of the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg earlier this month amid the investigation. Qiu, who was part of a team working out of the NML that developed ZMapp, a vaccine for Ebola used during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa, had also been an adjunct microbiology professor at the University of Manitoba.
A spokesman for the university told Reuters that Qiu had been a non-salaried adjunct professor but that her appointment had ended, “pending an RCMP investigation.”
Both the PHAC and the RCMP refused to comment on Qiu’s reported removal, and the NML referred all questions to the PHAC.
“There is no employee from the NML under arrest or confined to their home,” Eric Morrisette, spokesman for the PHAC, said. “We can assure Canadians that there is no risk to the public and that the work of the NML continues in support of the health and safety of all Canadians.”
Qiu, who is still listed on the university’s website, could not be reached via multiple attempts for comment.
CBC News reported that Qiu’s husband, Keding Cheng, a biologist at the NML, and an unknown number of her students from China were also removed from the lab.
Reuters also could not reach Cheng for comment.
The RCMP has “assessed that there is no threat to public safety at this time,” Courchaine, the spokeswoman, said in an email.
The alleged removal comes amid heightened tensions between Canada and China, which began when Canada, carrying out an extradition request from the United States, arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, in Vancouver in December 2018.
The sensitive nature of the research conducted at the NML means material housed there could be of interest to foreign countries.
The CBC reported that Qiu’s removal came several months after IT specialists at the NML entered her office after hours and replaced her computer.
(Reporting by Moira Warburton; Editing by Leslie Adler)