Reasons for ousting Chinese researchers from Canadian lab remain murky

By Miles Goscha
2 min read

Canadian authorities have said that a “policy breach” led to the July 5 removal of a prominent Canadian Chinese virologist, her biologist husband, and several students from Canada’s only high-containment disease lab in Winnipeg.

Virologist Xiangguo Qiu, Keding Cheng, and an unknown number of students were ousted from their workplace at the National Microbiology Laboratory. According to Science and CBC, the Public Health Agency of Canada-run lab also revoked their access rights.  

Why it matters: This set of firings comes in the midst of a series of tit-for-tat escalations between China and Canada that began with Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO and deputy chairwoman Meng Wanzhou. Qiu had previously been honored for her work on the Ebola treatment ZMapp. The World Health Organization (WHO) just declared the latest Ebola outbreak a global health emergency, and it is unclear whether her absence will have a detrimental effect on the continued development of treatments for the deadly disease. 

  • Both Qiu and Cheng held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, which has reportedly also terminated their positions. 

Details: The National Microbiology Laboratory is Canada’s only level-4 facility and one of only a few in North America equipped to handle the world’s deadliest diseases. Although the Public Health Agency has only referred to the removals as an “administrative matter,” some speculate that an unsanctioned transfer of intellectual property to China may be the cause for the terminations.  

  • All of the researchers involved are reportedly of Asian origin. 
  • According to CBC, Qiu, who is the head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies Section in the Special Pathogens Programme, maintained a relationship with a university in her home of Tianjin, China.
  • The University of Manitoba has since suggested that faculty avoid traveling to China while the investigation is underway. 

Context: The actions taken by the Public Health Agency and the University of Manitoba strongly resemble those carried out by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) as it investigates suspicious activity by individuals for whom it provides grant funds. As a result, a number of researchers and academics of Chinese origin have been forced from their positions, sparking concerns in the scientific community of racial profiling and politically motivated firings. Meanwhile, some in China see the perceived purge as an opportunity: in response to Qiu’s ouster, the Global Times tweeted that “it’s the best time for China to attract top-ranking Chinese-origin researchers to work in China.”