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

Edna Whiteley in 2016. “Her whole life has been happy and about helping others,” says her nephew Bob Steed. Photo: Submitted
Nelson’s ‘little firecracker’ Edna Whiteley turns 100

Whiteley is known as a welcoming ambassador for new arrivals in the city

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
67 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Thirty people in the region are hospitalized with the virus, 11 of whom are intensive care

An animal carrier full of bullet holes and containing a dead animal was found near Castlegar. Photo: Colleen Schwartz
Castlegar woman finds dead animal inside carrier riddled with bullet holes

The remains were discovered near Syringa Creek Provincial Park

Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison. Photo courtesy Conservative Party of Canada.
Kootenay-Columbia MP pans federal budget

Conservative Rob Morrison says budget doesn’t have a plan for long-term spending priorities

These are the faces we were born with, we are sorry.
VIDEO: Wednesday Roundup

Bill and Tyler chat about the latest in Nelson

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

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson leaves the assembly with Premier John Horgan after the budget speech Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Paid sick leave for ‘hard-hit’ workers left out of provincial budget: BCGEU

‘For recovery to be equitable it requires supports for workers, not just business,’ says union president Laird Cronk

A large crowd protested against COVID-19 measures at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Snapchat)
VIDEO: Large, police-patrolled crowds gather at Vancouver beach for COVID protests

Vancouver police said they patrolled the area and monitored all gatherings

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

Former University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Rowing Canada sanctions former head coach of B.C. varsity women’s team

Suspension of Barney Williams would be reversed if he complies with certain terms

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Most Read