May 26th, 2024

MPs chide ‘incompetent’ health agency over fired National Microbiology Lab scientists

By The Canadian Press on April 19, 2024.

A lab technician works in a mobile lab at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg on Nov. 3, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pool, Reuters - Lyle Stafford

OTTAWA – Federal officials in charge of the National Microbiology Lab are defending security protocols at the Winnipeg institution against accusations of incompetence from opposition MPs.

The head of the Public Health Agency of Canada appeared before a parliamentary committee on relations between Canada and China, where she was peppered with questions about the firing of two researchers in 2021.

The agency fired two researchers who left Canada after their security clearances were revoked over questions about their loyalty and potential coercion by Beijing.

Records tabled in Parliament in February say the scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, played down their collaborations with Chinese government agencies.

MPs representing the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and even a Liberal are accusing the agency of being naive or incompetent in allowing the scientists to undertake sensitive work while they were under investigation.

In her testimony, the head of the agency Heather Jeffrey says her colleagues have improved protocols, but she stresses that the fired scientists “hid and in fact lied” about their affiliations.

The RCMP are undertaking a national-security investigation, though Qiu and Cheng have not been prosecuted for any criminal charge in relation to the allegations.

Bloc MP René Villemure told the committee he is “stunned” that “incompetent” employees of PHAC have not faced consequences, after agency head Heather Jeffrey suggested only the two scientists had been disciplined.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith repeatedly asked Jeffrey whether the updated protocols would have stopped the unauthorized shipment of pathogens to China, a question she said was only theoretical.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.

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