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

File photo
A man walks into a Cargill meat processing factory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Alberta meat plant, site of COVID-19 outbreak last year, to get vaccination clinics

Nearly half of the 2,200 workers at the Cargill facility contracted the novel coronavirus and two employees died last April

Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, left, Grand Chief Arthur Noskey, centre and Chief Aaron Young during a meeting with First Nations Chiefs and Grand Chiefs in Edmonton. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta must retract Forest Act before it becomes law: Treaty 8 grand chief

‘We are asking (the government) to pull this back and consult with us,’ says Arthur Noskey of Treaty 8 First Nations

Alberta’s largest school board says it will not use the United Conservative government’s draft elementary school curriculum pilot this fall. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)
Calgary school board says no to United Conservative draft school curriculum

Other school boards including Edmonton Public, Edmonton Catholic, Elk Island Public, Wild Rose, Medicine Hat Public, Medicine Hat Catholic and Lethbridge Public have also rejected it

Alberta reported its highest number of daily COVID-19 cases since December 16 on Friday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Alberta reports 1,521 additional COVID-19 cases, 674 new variant cases

Daily case total the highest since mid-December

A cross made out of hockey sticks at a makeshift memorial is silhouetted against the setting sun at the intersection of a fatal bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., on Monday, April, 9, 2018. A virtual tribute is planned to mark the third anniversary of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
VIDEO: Humboldt Broncos team to be honoured on third anniversary of fatal bus crash

16 people died and 13 were injured when a semi-trailer ran a stop sign into the path of the hockey team’s bus

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

Vancouver’s park board general manager issued a new order Friday restricting tents and other temporary structures from being set up in Strathcona Park after April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver park board issues order to restrict tents in Strathcona Park

The order issued Friday restricted tents and other temporary structures from being set up after April 30

Stettler’s own Renegade Station is kicking off the spring season with a brand new single - to be released April 9th. (Photo submitted)
A brand new single is on the way from Stettler-based band Renegade Station

Free Free Free hits all streaming platforms on April 9th

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau waits for a virtual meeting to begin with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ottawa, Friday February 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Ottawa mulls exempting more workers from Canada-U.S. border shutdown: Garneau

Canada-U.S. border has been closed to people travelling for vacations and other non-essential visits since March 2020

A worker smooths concrete at a construction site in Toronto on January 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
Economy adds 303,000 jobs in March, unemployment rate falls: Statistics Canada

Figure released this morning outpaced the 259,000 gain seen in February

FILE - This file photo dated July 10, 1947 shows the official photograph of Britain’s Princess Elizabeth and her fiance, Lieut. Philip Mountbatten in London. Buckingham Palace says Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died aged 99. (AP Photo/File)
Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, dies at 99

Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16

Campbell River city council will continue its 2020 policy of waiving late fees and NSFs. (Mirror File photo)
53% of Canadians teetering the brink of insolvency: survey

A majority of Canadians admit they’re just $200 away from not being able to pay their monthly bills

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney listens as the 2021 budget is delivered in Edmonton Alta, on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Kenney faces criticism from doctors, his own caucus, over new COVID-19 health rules

Alberta now has more than 10,000 active cases, about 43 per cent are variants

Most Read