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

The East Kootenay Network of People Who Use Drugs is organizing a march to city hall on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, starting at 11 a.m. from the ANKORS office. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
Advocates to march for overdose awareness, calls for action

B.C. declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency five years ago

Deer will often eat fruit that has fallen from fruit trees. The City’s bylaw states that residents must keep their yards free from fallen fruit. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
Time to manage wildlife attractants, says City of Cranbrook

City reminds residents to keep yards free of fruit, pet food, food waste

Zeth Kindrachuk is pictured in action against the Trail Smoke Eaters in the Penticton pod, Saturday, April 10. Jack Murray photo
Bucks drop two to pod rivals

Cranbrook getting to know Penticton Vees, Trail Smoke Eaters, very well indeed.

TC Energy donated $2,000 to Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services to be used towards the purchase of footwear for wildland firefighting situations. Photo courtesy City of Cranbrook.
TC Energy donates $2,000 towards specialized fire department gear

Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services is the recipient of a $2,000 grant… Continue reading

The KEYSA  Mr. Mike's Junior Players of the Week were Molly Cain and Avery Swain (pictured with Coach Rob Niedermayer).
KEYSA Players of the Week and team standings

League finals set for next week

People take part in an anti-curfew protest in Montreal on Sunday April 11, 2021. Hundreds of people gathered in Old Montreal tonight in defiance of a new 8 p.m. curfew. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Giuseppe Valiante
VIDEO: Hundreds defy Montreal’s 8 p.m. curfew in violent, destructive protest

Quebec reported 1,535 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, as well as five additional deaths linked to the virus

Interior Health improves access to mental health supports amid COVID-19 pandemic. (Stock)
Interior Health connects people to mental health resources amid COVID

310-MHSU line receives positive feedback in early months of rollout

A volunteer disinfects a historical Mohabat Khan mosque ahead of the upcoming Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Friday, April 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)
For Canadian Muslims, second pandemic Ramadan is a time of hope and sadness

Many members of the association are trying to find ways ‘to help people stay connected to one another’

South Surrey farmland, March 2020. The province’s crackdown on secondary residences sparked protests that have the NDP government engaged in a lengthy rewrite of its legislation. (Tracy Holmes/Peace Arch News)
B.C. NDP now wants to keep even ‘non-farmers’ on the land

‘Grandfathering’ of second residences extended again

Photos of Vancouver Canucks players are pictured outside the closed box office of Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver Thursday, April 8, 2021. The Vancouver Canucks say 25 players and coaches have tested positive during a COVID-19 outbreak that involves a variant of the virus. It is now the biggest reported outbreak in the NHL this season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canucks’ return to practice pushed back as player added to COVID protocol list

COVID outbreak has led to eight games being cancelled

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

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

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Most Read