Newly-released access-to-information documents reveal details about a shipment of deadly pathogens last year from Canada’s National Microbiology Lab to China — confirming for the first time who sent them, what exactly was shipped, and where it went.
CBC News had already reported about the shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses but there’s now confirmation one of the scientists escorted from the lab in Winnipeg amid an RCMP investigation last July was responsible for exporting the pathogens to the Wuhan Institute of Virology four months earlier.
Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng and her students from China were removed from Canada’s only level-4 lab over what’s described as a possible “policy breach.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada had asked the RCMP to get involved several months earlier.
The virus shipments are not related to the outbreak of COVID-19 or research into the pandemic, Canadian officials said.
PHAC said the shipment and Qiu’s eviction from the lab are not connected.
“The administrative investigation is not related to the shipment of virus samples to China,” Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada wrote in an email.
“In response to a request from the Wuhan Institute of Virology for viral samples of Ebola and Henipah viruses, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) sent samples for the purpose of scientific research in 2019.”
‘It is alarming’
However, experts are concerned.
“It is suspicious. It is alarming. It is potentially life-threatening,” said Amir Attaran, a law professor and epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa.
“We have a researcher who was removed by the RCMP from the highest security laboratory that Canada has for reasons that government is unwilling to disclose. The intelligence remains secret. But what we know is that before she was removed, she sent one of the deadliest viruses on Earth, and multiple varieties of it to maximize the genetic diversity and maximize what experimenters in China could do with it, to a laboratory in China that does dangerous gain of function experiments. And that has links to the Chinese military.”
Gain of function experiments are when a natural pathogen is taken into the lab, made to mutate, and then assessed to see if it has become more deadly or infectious.
Most countries, including Canada, don’t do these kinds of experiments — because they’re considered too dangerous, Attaran said.
“The Wuhan lab does them and we have now supplied them with Ebola and Nipah viruses. It does not take a genius to understand that this is an unwise decision,” he said.
“I am extremely unhappy to see that the Canadian government shared that genetic material.”
Attaran pointed to an Ebola study first published in December 2018, three months after Qiu began the process of exporting the viruses to China. The study involved researchers from the NML and University of Manitoba.
The lead author, Hualei Wang, is involved with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, a Chinese military medical research institute in Beijing.
All of this has led to conspiracy theories linking the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, Canada’s microbiology lab, and the lab in Wuhan.
The RCMP and PHAC have consistently denied any connections between the pandemic and the virus shipments. There is no evidence linking this shipment to the spread of the coronavirus. Ebola is a filovirus and Henipa is a paramyxovirus; no coronavirus samples were sent.
The ATIP documents identify for the first time exactly what was shipped to China.
The list includes two vials each of 15 strains of virus (about 15 ml):
- Ebola Makona (three different varieties)
- Ivory Coast.
- Sudan Boniface.
- Sudan Gulu.
- Nipah Malaysia.
- Nipah Bangladesh.
PHAC said the National Microbiology Lab routinely shares samples with other public health labs.
The transfers follow strict protocols, including requirements under the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act (HPTA), the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, the Canadian Biosafety Standard, and standard operating procedures of the NML.
CBC News has not been provided with some of the paperwork involved with the transfer, as information was redacted under sections of the Access to Information Act dealing with international affairs, national security and other issues.
Confusion, concern over shipment
The ATIP documents provide details about the months leading up to the shipment — including confusion over how to package the deadly viruses — the lack of decontamination of the package before it was sent, and concerns expressed by the NML’s director-general Matthew Gilmour in Winnipeg, and his superiors in Ottawa.
They wanted to know where the package was going, what was in it, and whether it had the proper paperwork.
In one email, Gilmour said Material Transfer Agreements would be required, “not generic ‘guarantees’ on the storage and usage.”
He also asked David Safronetz, chief of special pathogens: “Good to know that you trust this group. How did we get connected with them?”
Safronetz replied: “They are requesting material from us due to collaboration with Dr. Qiu.”
Meanwhile, it appears the NML’s shipper initially planned to send the viruses in inappropriate packaging and only changed it when the clients in China flagged the problem.
“The only reason the correct packaging was used is because the Chinese wrote to them and said, ‘Aren’t you making a mistake here?’ If that had not happened, the scientists would have placed on an Air Canada flight, several of them actually, a deadly virus incorrectly packaged. That nearly happened,” Attaran said.
The package was routed from Winnipeg to Toronto and then to Beijing on a commercial Air Canada flight on Mar. 31, 2019.
The next day, the recipients replied that the package had arrived safely.
“We would like to express our sincere gratitude to you all for your continuous support, especially Dr. Qiu and Anders! Thanks a lot!! Looking forward to our further cooperation in the future,” said the heavily redacted email, which does not provide the name of the sender.
Nearly one year after the expulsion of Qiu, Cheng, and her students from the NML, there are still no updates on the case from the RCMP or PHAC.
At the time, Public Health Agency spokesperson Morrissette said the department was taking steps to resolve this case as quickly as possible.
On Thursday, he said the investigation has not yet concluded.
“Administrative investigations are impartial, thorough and in-depth. They are also procedurally fair and respect the rights of individuals,” he said.
Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, said he welcomes scientific collaboration and exchanges with China, “but there has to be a framework of rules in place” and Canada’s intellectual property must be protected.
Houlden, a former diplomat, has many unanswered questions about this particular shipment.
A vacuum of information is always a problem, especially in a situation of heightened tension with China over the arrest of a Huawei executive in Canada, the seemingly retaliatory arrest of two Canadian men in China and questions over the origins of the coronavirus, he said.
“There’s also a danger if you don’t provide information that people will jump always to the worst conclusion,” Houlden said.
Current NML head Matthew Gilmour was not made available for an interview. He is leaving as of July to work for the U.K.-based Quadram Institute Bioscience. His medical adviser, Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, will take over until a permanent replacement can be found.
Qiu could also not be reached for a comment.
Qiu is a prominent virologist who helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014-2016. (CBC)