The National Microbiology Laboratory is shown in Winnipeg, May 19, 2009. The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada has been given until the end of the week to explain why two Canadian government scientists were let go 18 months after being escorted from Canada’s only Level 4 laboratory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The National Microbiology Laboratory is shown in Winnipeg, May 19, 2009. The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada has been given until the end of the week to explain why two Canadian government scientists were let go 18 months after being escorted from Canada’s only Level 4 laboratory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

PHAC president given until Friday to explain why two scientists let go

The pair were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada has been given until the end of the week to explain why two Canadian government scientists were let go 18 months after being escorted from Canada’s only Level 4 laboratory.

Iain Stewart came under fire Monday from opposition MPs after he repeatedly refused to explain why PHAC terminated the employment of Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, in January.

Stewart told the special committee on Canada-China relations that he could not provide details due to privacy issues and “security with respect to the investigation” still being conducted by the RCMP.

He would say only that PHAC conducted its own investigation, that it is now completed and the pair are no longer employed by the agency.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it further,” Stewart said repeatedly.

The pair were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 over what was described as a possible policy breach and administrative matter.

The Winnipeg lab is Canada’s highest-security laboratory, designed to deal safely with deadly contagious germs such as Ebola.

PHAC has said their escorted exit had nothing to do with the fact that four months earlier, Qiu had been responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

But opposition MPs repeatedly tried to link the two events, and to further link it to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which first surfaced in China’s Wuhan province.

Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, head of the National Microbiology Laboratory, told the committee that Canada has never transferred any coronaviruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis asked if there has ever been a case in which a Canadian lab fired a scientist over security breaches or the improper transfer of viruses.

He erupted when Stewart replied that he was “not able to answer the question as structured.”

“I’m glad you have a bloody senior office in this country where you’re supposed to account to parliamentarians and the Canadian people. Now answer the damned question,” Genuis said.

“This is such an utter disgrace.”

Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos interrupted Genuis’ questioning on a point of order, chiding him for badgering the witness and breaching decorum.

But at that point committee chair Geoff Regan briefly lost his Internet connection to the virtual meeting so Genuis, as vice-chair, took over. He dismissed Fragiskatos’ point of order and similarly denied another Liberal MP’s suggestion that the meeting be suspended briefly until the technical issues could be worked out.

Genuis eventually turned over the chair to another MP after New Democrat Jack Harris said it was inappropriate for him to act as chair while continuing his questioning and dealing with points of order about his own conduct.

Stewart later told the committee he was sorry his refusal to provide details was “causing stress and unhappiness. That’s the legal advice I was provided in preparation for this session.”

Bloc Quebecois MP Stephane Bergeron warned Stewart he could be found in contempt of Parliament if he continued to refuse to provide details. If the details are too sensitive to be revealed publicly, Bergeron suggested that they could be provided in confidence to committee members instead.

Stewart said he would consult with legal counsel about that alternative.

Conservative MP John Williamson suggested there’s another reason for Stewart’s refusal to answer questions about the matter “and that is just bureaucratic butt-covering, incompetence, malfeasance in the department.”

The committee eventually agreed to a Genuis motion calling on Stewart to explain to members, in confidence if he wishes, by Friday at 2 p.m. why the two scientists were fired.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Members of the community garden hosted their first seed swap and fundraiser at the Greenwood Mall in Sparwood on Monday. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)
Sparwood Community Garden hosts first seed swap

Work on the garden at Engelmann Spruce Drive will begin soon

Crews and volunteers responded to a four-hectare wildfire on the lower half of the Aqam community lands near Cranbrook on Friday afternoon. Trevor Crawley photo.
Wildfire season gets early start in the East Kootenay

Fire crews, volunteers respond to two local wildfires, while prescribed burns turn weekend skies smoky

A conceptual image of a multi-family housing development envisioned by Abugov Kaspar Architects to go on a lot in Castle Mountain in Fernie. (Image courtesy of City of Fernie)
City defers zoning decision

A zoning change would permit a development with 15 percent rental tenure residences in Castle Mountain

Rob and Jennifer King run Sasquatch Cyclery out of their garage. (Soranne Floarea/ The Free Press)
‘Hop on it now’: Parts crunch hits cycling

New bikes are hard to get and used bikes are selling at a premium this year

Michel-Natal-Sparwood Heritage Society runs a museum that was established to display the heritage of the "no-longer towns" of Michel and Natal, and the Elk Valley Area. Photo Submitted/Monica Beranek, Artifact Curator
Sparwood Museum requests a leg up to stay open full-time

The museum is volunteer-run, but needs a full-time employee to be able to snag much-needed grants

Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and vacation bookings are being increased in B.C. (B.C. government)
Out-of-region B.C. vacation bookings, RV ferry reservations to be refused

B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

Pharmacist Barbara Violo arranges all the empty vials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines that she has provided to customers at the Junction Chemist which is a independent pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto, on Monday, April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
B.C. to target people ages 40+ in ‘high risk communities’ with AstraZeneca vaccine

A total of 13 neighbourhoods and communities will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Carver Ken Sheen had almost finished work on a large cowboy carving commissioned by the City of Williams Lake to replace the original overlooking the Stampede Grounds when fire broke out Friday, April 18 at his property between Williams Lake and Quesnel. (Pine River Carving Facebook photos)
Cow boss statue destined for Williams Lake Stampede Grounds goes up in flames

Carver Ken Sheen lost the statue, all his tools and his shop in the blaze

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains. (Hansard TV)
B.C. moves to protect employee pay for COVID-19 vaccination

Most won’t need to take time off work, labour minister says

New figures show Canadian housing prices outpacing those in other developed countries. (Black Press Media file photo)
Canadian housing prices fastest rising in the world

Relative to 2000, housing prices have risen by a factor of more than 2.5

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
80-million-year-old turtle find on B.C. river exciting fossil hunters

Remains of two-foot creature of undetermined species will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Most Read