Chinese researcher escorted from infectious disease lab amid RCMP investigation

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng. Suspected of espionage for China, a group of Chinese virologists was forcibly evicted from the Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, where they had been running parts of the Special Pathogen Program of Canada’s public health agency. One of the procedures conducted by the team was the infection of monkeys with the most lethal viruses found on Earth. Four months prior to the Chinese team’s eviction, a shipment containing two exceptionally virulent viruses—Ebola and Nipah—was sent from the NML to China. When the shipment was traced, it was held to be improper and a “possible policy breach.”

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 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.