Opposition MPs push for documents on Winnipeg lab transfer and fired scientists
WINNIPEG -- The Liberal government faced more questions Tuesday over the firing of two scientists from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.
Opposition MPs have been calling on the Public Health Agency of Canada to turn over all unredacted documents related to a lab transfer more than two years ago to Wuhan, China, and the departure of the employees.
“When will this government show some respect for Parliament and follow the order of this House to produce the documents related to the breaches at its Winnipeg lab,” said Michael Chong, a Conservative MP from Ontario during question period.
But the government has argued national security is at stake.
“It’s a shame that Conservatives are more focused on innuendo and conspiracy theories than doing the job of parliamentarians in this House and protecting the national security of all Canadians,” said Jennifer O’Connell, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health.
The debate Tuesday came one day after a rare procedural move in which Iain Stewart, the head of the Public Health Agency of Canada, was publicly admonished in the House. Stewart was reprimanded for refusing to hand over unredacted documents on the issue to the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations.
“As stated already the documents have been provided to two separate committees,” O’Connell said.
But one set of documents had redactions, while the unredacted version went to the National Security and Intelligence Committee made up of parliamentarians with top security clearance.
The head of the Public Health Agency has previously said Ebola and Henipah viruses were transferred in March 2019 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. The redacted documents show there were concerns over a lack of a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) between the two labs but officials have since said that procedures were followed.
It’s a transfer that was coordinated by celebrated Ebola researcher Xiangguo Qiu. She and her biologist husband were escorted out of the lab in July 2019 and fired this past January after an administrative review.
Christian Leuprecht, a security expert and professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University, said there may be more to the issue than concerns over a lab transfer agreement.
“I think the committee here is making a case that there is a strong public interest dimension as to what is transpiring here,” said Leuprecht. “The slip-up on a transfer agreement in and of itself may possibly have serious repercussions for them as civil servants but would not trigger a national security investigation and a subsequent criminal investigation.”
The head Public Health Agency has said the transfer of the viruses is not connected to the departure of the two employees and that there is no link to the SARS CoV-2 virus.
The RCMP is investigating possible policy breaches but had no immediate update Tuesday on the status of the investigation.
Stewart has told the House of Commons he’s obligated to abide by legal and privacy restrictions.
The Public Health Agency said on Tuesday it has no additional comment on the issue.