No one’s calling it another example of Chinese spying but a recent incident at a Canadian disease laboratory is raising questions and prompting growing speculation.
Sciencemag.org reports that 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 the 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.