By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Deadly viruses quietly transported out of the country, foreign scientists unceremoniously removed from their labs, a China connection, possible theft of intellectual property – it all sounds like an intriguing Hollywood thriller.
In this case, however, the scenario is real but no conclusion or explanation is in sight.
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‘Live’ Ebola and Henipah Viruses
According to the CBC’s Karen Pauls, on March 31, scientists at Canada’s National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, sent live Ebola and Henipah viruses to Beijing on a commercial Air Canada flight.
These viruses are Level 4 pathogens, meaning they are among the deadliest in the world. “They must be contained in a lab with the highest level of biosafety control, such as the one in Winnipeg,” Pauls explained.
Two Months Later, Public Health Agency Alerted RCMP
Two months after the shipment arrived in China, on May 24, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) referred what it called an “administrative matter” to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). That resulted in the July 5 removal of two Chinese research scientists — Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng — from their Manitoba laboratory positions, Pauls wrote.
Reuters reported that Qiu “was escorted out of the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg” amid the investigation. She was the head of the lab’s Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies section in the Special Pathogens Program, where she worked with the Ebola virus.
Qiu’s biologist husband Cheng and an “unknown number of her students from China were also removed from the lab,” according to Reuters.
Qiu and Cheng Not Arrested Yet, but Their Security Clearances Have Been Revoked
No charges have been filed against them so far. But the couple’s security clearances have been revoked, and the University of Manitoba has cut its ties with them. The PHAC and the RCMP have refused to comment on Qiu’s removal.
Qiu was part of a team that developed ZMapp, a vaccine used during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. ZMapp was administered to seven patients infected with Ebola. Five of them survived, while two died. “Despite previous Ebola outbreaks causing mortality rates as high as 90%, the investigative therapy’s efficacy was not considered statistically significant,” MD magazine determined.
Citing several anonymous sources, the CBC said they thought that the pathogens “may have been shipped to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in a way that circumvented the lab’s operating procedures, and without a document protecting Canada’s intellectual property rights.”
Workers at the lab are not allowed to send anything to other countries or labs without the intellectual property (IP) office negotiating the transfer. Also, there must be a mutual transfer agreement in place “in case the material sent leads to a notable discovery.”
PHAC media relations chief Eric Morrissette said it was routine to share samples of pathogens and toxins with other countries. He noted that all transfers of Level 4 samples “follow strict transportation requirements and are authorized by senior officials at the lab.” Moreover, “the NML tracks and keeps electronic records of all shipments of samples in accordance with the HPTA.” Agreements for the transfer of materials are determined on a case-by-case basis, Morrissette added.
Suspicions Raised about Possibility of Intellectual Property Theft
Leah West, a national security law expert, has her doubts about the entire episode. As she told the CBC, “You don’t send a policy breach, a bureaucratic policy breach, to the RCMP to investigate unless you believe that that policy breach has resulted in a criminal offense or could have resulted in a criminal offense.”
If China was using these scientists to gain access to a potentially valuable pathogen without having to license the patent, West said it makes sense that China would try “to gain access to valuable IP without paying for it.”
US May Have Caused Political Strains between Canada and China
Another possible reason for the action taken against the Chinese scientists and their students involves the United States. Canadian-Chinese relations have been strained since Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of tech giant Huawei, at the request of the U.S. last December in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The U.S. indicted Meng and Huawei of flouting U.S. sanctions against Iran and stealing trade secrets from telecommunications firm T-Mobile.
In retaliation, China is detaining two Canadians and also boycotting Canadian imports of canola and pork.
Jia Wang, deputy director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, admitted to the CBC that “China has been involved in the past in espionage and intellectual property theft.” Wang says she is waiting to see what the RCMP investigation finds. In the meanwhile, Wang wants to “gently remind people not to jump into any conclusions too quickly.”