Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Mystery surrounds ouster of Chinese researchers from Canadian laboratory

Canadian researchers are reacting with puzzlement to the news that a “policy breach” has caused the nation’s only high-containment disease laboratory to bar a prominent Chinese Canadian virologist, her biologist husband, and a number of students from the facility.

On 5 July, officials at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, Canada, escorted Xiangguo Qiu, biologist Keding Cheng, and an unknown number of her students from the lab and revoked their access rights, according to Canadian media reports. The Public Health Agency of Canada, which operates the lab, confirmed it had referred an “administrative matter” matter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but said it would not provide additional details because of privacy concerns.

A number of observers have speculated that case involves concerns about the improper transfer of intellectual property to China. (All of the researchers involved are believed to be Asian.) But Frank Plummer, a former scientific director of NML who left in 2015, says the lab isn’t an obvious target for academic or industrial espionage. “There is nothing highly secret there, and all the work gets published in the open literature,” he says. “I don’t know what anyone would hope to gain by spying.”

The lab works in a wide range of biomedical fields. Qiu is known for helping develop ZMapp, a treatment for Ebola virus that was fast-tracked through development during the 2014–16 outbreak in West Africa. She has repeatedly been honored for her work on that project, including with a Governor General’s Innovation Award last year.

“While I was there [Qiu] was always highly regarded as a scientist,” says Plummer, adding that he was “shocked and puzzled” when he heard she was being investigated. “She maintained connections with China, but as far as I knew she was a regular Canadian scientist.”

Cheng, Qiu’s husband, also worked as a biologist at NML. And both researchers held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. It says it has terminated their positions and reassigned their students as a result of the investigation.

Neither Qiu nor Cheng could be reached for comment.

The development comes at a sensitive time for relations between Canada and China. In December 2018, Canada arrested Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States. In retaliation, China has arrested two Canadian men on espionage charges and sentenced a third to death for drug offenses.

It also comes as the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has raised concerns that some grantees have failed to disclose ties to China and other nations, or improperly shared confidential information. The concerns have led several universities to oust researchers who are ethnic Chinese and return grant funds to NIH. The crackdown has raised concerns among the Chinese American community of racial profiling. In Canada, the nation’s Security Intelligence Service has long warned of state-sponsored espionage, and in 2014, the Canadian government alleged that China was behind a cyberattack on Canada’s National Research Council.