University severs ties with researcher who was escorted out of National Microbiology Lab

By | July 15, 2019

The University of Manitoba has cut ties with a researcher who was escorted out the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg earlier this month, until an RCMP investigation is complete.

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu is a medical doctor and virologist who helped helped develop ZMapp, a vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus.

She was also an adjunct professor in the university’s department of medical microbiology — until Monday.

Her non-salaried position “has ended and all students she supervised have been reassigned, pending the RCMP investigation,” university spokesperson John Danakas said in an email.

Danakas was unavailable to provide further details, including the number of students affected.

Qiu could not be reached for comment. On Monday, her profile was still on the university website.

Qiu accepts a Governor General’s Innovation Award at Rideau Hall in 2018. (CBC News)

According to sources inside the NML, Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng and an unknown number of her students from China were removed from the lab on July 5. The level-4 virology facility — the only one in Canada — is equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. 

Security access for the couple and the Chinese students was revoked.

Sources say this comes several months after IT specialists for the NML entered Qiu’s office after hours and replaced her computer. Her regular trips to China also started being denied.

At a meeting on July 8, NML staff were told the couple is on leave for an unknown period of time. They were told not to communicate with them.

Manitoba RCMP started an investigation after the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) contacted them on May 24.

The RCMP and PHAC say there is no threat to public safety.

PHAC is describing the situation as a possible “policy breach” and is taking steps to “resolve it expeditiously,” said Eric Morrissette, the health agency’s chief of media relations.

He declined further comment, citing privacy reasons.

Qiu received her medical degree from Hebei Medical University in 1985 and came to Canada for graduate studies in 1996.  

She is still affiliated with the university there and has brought in many students over the years to help with her work.

During a news conference on Monday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the Chinese Embassy in Toronto has not received any notification that Chinese citizens are involved.

“If indeed there are Chinese citizens involved, our embassy and consulates will provide consular assistance and earnestly protect their legitimate rights and interests according to law,” he said, according to an English transcript on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website.

It was not immediately clear if Qui is a Canadian citizen, permanent resident or a Chinese national.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said he can’t comment on this specific case but says NATO is helping improve the resilience of allies when it comes to cyber espionage. (CBC News)

The situation also came up during a news conference with the secretary-general of NATO. 

Jens Stoltenberg, who toured CFB Petawawa on Monday and met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said at a news conference he couldn’t comment on this specific case, but appeared to suggest the possibility of espionage.

“What I can say in general is that we have seen increased efforts by the nations to spy on NATO allies in different ways,” he said . 

“This is partly about industrial espionage and it affects our military forces and military intelligence so this is something that we take very seriously.” 

There is no confirmation espionage is involved in this case.