RCMP investigate possible policy breach at National Microbiology Lab

By | July 12, 2019

Manitoba RCMP are investigating a possible policy breach at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.

Few details have been made public, but an RCMP spokesperson confirms police received a referral from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“Based on information received to date, the RCMP has assessed that there is no threat to public safety at this time,” Robert Cyrenne said in an email to CBC News on Thursday.

“In order to maintain the integrity of the investigative process, we have no further comment at this time.”

The Public Health Agency describes it as a policy breach and “administrative matter.” It says the department is taking steps to “resolve it expeditiously,” but did not clarify when the incident occurred or what specifically happened.

“There is no employee from the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) under arrest or confined to their home,” Eric Morrissette, the health agency’s chief of media relations, said from Ottawa.

“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. For privacy reasons, we will not provide further information on this matter.”

That lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling dangerous pathogens such as Ebola, HIV and anthrax. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The National Microbiology Lab is the only Level 4 virology facility in Canada — meaning a lab equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. That makes the Arlington Street lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling pathogens requiring the highest level of containment, such as Ebola, HIV and anthrax.

The lab helped develop ZMapp. The cocktail of three monoclonal antibodies has proven to be one of the most successful treatments for Ebola, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014-2016.

This isn’t the first time police have investigated an incident at the lab.

In 2009, a former researcher at the lab was convicted of trying to smuggle genetic material from the Ebola virus across the Manitoba-North Dakota border.

Konan Michel Yao had 22 vials of the substance in the trunk of his car when he tried to cross the border.

The vials were wrapped in aluminum foil inside a glove and packaged in a plastic bag, along with electrical wires.

Yao told officers he was taking the vials to his new job with the National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Md., because he didn’t want to start from scratch in his research.

Yao was sentenced to 17 days in jail, which he had already served, and fined $500.

The Winnipeg lab reviewed its biosecurity protocol after that incident.