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

Interior Health nurses administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
69 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 9,840 since the pandemic began

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Interior Health hospitals not strained by rising COVID case counts

While provincial hospitalizations rise, health care systems in the B.C. Interior remain robust, say officials

BC CDC data showing the geographic distribution of COVID cases in the province. (BC CDC photo)
One new case of COVID-19 in Golden

Cases continue to surge in surrounding areas

The Golden Golf Club will open for a new season on the links beginning April 24. (Claire Palmer photo)
Golden Golf club eyes April 24 start

The golf course is supporting local businesses with the driving range and mini-golf

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
105 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

Just over 8,000 new vaccine doses administered in the region for a total of 158,000 to date

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The plane blasted through an airport fence and down a hill, before stopping before a cement barrier on Highway 5A, right in front of a school bus. Photo submitted.
Student pilot crashes plane onto Highway 5A in Princeton

Aircraft hit pavement right in front of school bus

Vernon Fire Rescue Services responded to a truck fire on Dallas Road in Vernon April 15, 2021. (Brendan Shykora - Vernon Morning Star)
WATCH: Vernon firefighters quick to douse fully involved truck fire

The fire was near multiple structures and spreading along the ground upon crews’ arrival

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

Fire crews tend to a collision that is causing severe traffic delays on the William R. Bennett bridge headed east into Kelowna. (Aaron Hemens - Kelowna Capital News)
7 vehicle collision on WR Bennett Bridge under investigation

The collision backed up traffic on the William R. Bennett bridge for much of the morning

Kelowna company celebrates milestone of producing 46 million masks in under a year.
46 million masks and counting: Kelowna company reaches 1 year milstone

In under a year, Breathe Manufacturing Ltd. in Kelowna has hit production of 46 million masks for front-line workers

The organizer of a Kelowna protest against COVID-19 restrictions was fined by the RCMP for the third time Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
Kelowna RCMP investigating hit and run involving 11-year-old

Police said the boy suffered minor injuries

Most Read