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A brilliant scientist was mysteriously fired from a Winnipeg virus lab. No one knows why.


Xiangguo Qiu would seem an unlikely character in a tale of international intrigue. A mild-mannered scientist who won accolades for her work fighting the deadly Ebola virus inside Canada’s most secure laboratory, her career was cut short in July 2019, when she and her husband were escorted out of her Winnipeg lab by the RCMP. Since then, she has become a central figure in a major political battle in Ottawa and the star of international conspiracy theories. She has been accused of selling state secrets, contributing to a clandestine Chinese bioweapons program, and even of helping to create COVID-19.

The story of Xiangguo Qiu is still shrouded in mystery, but former colleagues have told Maclean’s her case has more to do with tensions and warring priorities inside the lab than with anything more nefarious. Qiu’s own signature accomplishment, they say, offers some clues as to exactly where it all went wrong.

A medical doctor and biologist, Qiu joined the National Microbiology Lab (NML)—run by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)—in 2003. Much of her work at NML focused on Ebola. There, she led a project that hoped to prove that lab-grown “monoclonal” antibodies could stop the virus from infecting healthy cells—if their strategy worked, it could be a huge breakthrough in treating other viral infections, from HIV to other coronaviruses to who knows what else. (Her husband, Keding Cheng, also a biologist at the lab, helped the project on occasion.)

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In 2005, Qiu and her colleagues in NML’s Special Pathogen program published a paper outlining how these monoclonal antibodies could work, but their promise was still hypothetical. They had been used to treat cancer and other illnesses for years, but the problem was that viruses like Ebola overran their targets’ immune systems incredibly quickly, and the antibodies just couldn’t act fast enough.

While many of Qiu’s colleagues went off to work on the lab’s more promising Ebola vaccine, she plugged away. “Despite the fact that everybody was saying that it will never work,” says Dr. Gary Kobinger, then the head of the program, “she kept going.”

(Illustration by Ben Shmulevitch)

(Illustration by Ben Shmulevitch)

The NML is Canada’s only biosafety level (BSL) 4 facility—level 4 is the world’s most secure classification, which means the NML can handle the most deadly and dangerous pathogens. The lab exists to pursue research that’s impossible for smaller labs, or unprofitable for private facilities. But being government-run comes with its own drawbacks: in 2010, the NML faced significant budget cuts. Kobinger had to put a number of projects on ice, but he gave Qiu a deadline: “I said, ‘Listen, we’re going to design experiments and we have six months,’ ” he recalls.

With the clock running out, something clicked: Qiu tried introducing three different monoclonal antibodies at the same time, which rapidly flooded the immune system of the lab animal. Monkeys infected with Ebola, on death’s door, staged miraculous recoveries. She called the cocktail of those three antibodies ZMAb.

The relief almost jumps off the page in a paper her team published in 2013: “The results reported here demonstrate for the first time complete protection against lethal [Ebola] infection when treatment is initiated as late as [three days post-infection].” ZMAb was quickly patented by the lab and licensed to a Canadian company.

When an Ebola epidemic began in West Africa in 2014, Health Canada ordered a small batch of ZMAb to be made. Partnering with two Canadian biomanufacturing companies, they produced a small run of antibodies, enough to give frontline medical workers who had been infected on the frontlines. It was the first time the antibodies had been given to a patient infected with Ebola, and it worked. (Years later, one doctor who received ZMAb would visit the lab to thank Qiu and Kobinger for saving his life.)

The government scientists weren’t in it for money or glory: when an American company, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, came forward with their own antibody cocktail, the Winnipeg lab offered to combine the two. They called the resulting treatment ZMapp. Ottawa drew up plans to mass-­produce the cocktail and ship it to West Africa: for $60 million, the Canadian government could have domestically produced enough antibodies—either ZMAb or ZMapp—to treat 40,000 people suffering from Ebola.

But it never happened. Instead of investing in two Canadian companies that were well-placed to manufacture the antibodies, which would have set Canada up as a more serious biomanufacturing hub, Ottawa instead tried to outsource the work to an American company. Canada never acquired a significant amount of the Winnipeg-designed therapy.

The idea lived on, however. The American company Regeneron developed a three-antibody cocktail that has proven remarkably effective in treating Ebola patients. Others have also built on the breakthrough. Monoclonal antibodies used to treat COVID-19 have cut the risk of death by as much as 70 per cent, while the first monoclonal antibody therapy was recently approved to treat and prevent HIV infection. The possibilities are endless.

In 2018, Qiu was awarded a Governor General’s Innovation Award, alongside Kobinger, for developing ZMAb, and heralded for her commitment to “unorthodox, cutting-edge technologies that went against prevailing scientific opinion.”

“So many labs are developing antibody therapies for other diseases,” she said after receiving her award. “I’m very happy. It’s not just that we found a cure for Ebola, but our work is having an impact on the whole scientific community. It has become a blueprint for treating those other infectious diseases.”

“This is what I’m the most excited about,” Kobinger told me in 2019, not long after Qiu was removed from the lab. “I think, to just have had a little contribution to this, was my career.”

Inside the lab, however, there was frustration. A number of those who worked there told Maclean’s that many felt the Special Pathogens program had discovered a way to save tens of thousands of lives, and could have been a world leader in these versatile therapeutics. Instead, the government squandered the opportunity by taking a short-sighted commercial approach.

***

Most Canadians weren’t familiar with Qiu or the NML—not until her 2019 removal from the lab set off a political firestorm.

Details on what, exactly, Qiu is alleged to have done remain murky. PHAC would say only that she was removed from the lab pending an “administrative investigation,” with the department vowing it was “taking steps to resolve it expeditiously.” The RCMP launched its own investigation in 2020, but it remains unclear what, exactly, they are investigating. CSIS confirms they have been contacted by the RCMP, but insists the investigation belongs to the police, not the intelligence agency.

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In the 2½ years since, no charges have been laid. In the absence of any explanation, reporting around the case has focused on Qiu’s connections to China. News outlets fixated on her work with scientists from the Academy of Military Science of the People’s Liberation Army, which does a significant amount of work researching infectious diseases and vaccines. Some reporting focused on the fact that graduate students from the University of Manitoba whose research was supervised by Qiu were also removed from the lab—the university declined to comment on those students, but previously told the CBC they had been “reassigned” to other professors.

There was breathless reporting that she had shipped dangerous viruses, including Ebola, to a BSL-4 lab in Wuhan, China, and ample speculation that she may have handed off Canadian intellectual property to contacts in China.

In Ottawa, opposition parties characterized the firings as a national security crisis and evidence of the Trudeau government’s too-cozy relationship with China. When they demanded documents from PHAC, the attorney general intervened to block their release—doing so, the government argued, could jeopardize future, still hypothetical, court proceedings. As of early 2022, that fight remains unresolved. The parties continue to wrangle over how those records could be released, and who should decide what information to disclose, redact or withhold entirely.

Conspiracy theories percolated on disreputable blogs and disinformation portals—after all, they argued, hadn’t COVID leaked out of that very same Wuhan lab Qiu had collaborated with? Other tenuous allegations were advanced by Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, who demanded to know how she got clearance to work at the “secret facility” in Winnipeg in the first place.

It remains an open question: what happened to Dr. Qiu?

***

Former colleagues see clues to Qiu and Cheng’s forced exit in the story of ZMAb.

Under the then-Conservative government, Qiu’s former colleagues say, Ottawa became “obsessed with intellectual property.” That meant research facilities like the NML were pressed to focus on research that could be readily patented, passed off to private companies and commercialized. This led to tensions in the lab between scientists hoping for life-saving breakthroughs and administrators, who were tasked with reducing costs and generating licensing revenue. (Most former colleagues would only speak off the record, so as not to jeopardize their jobs or professional relationships. Qiu herself did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.)

ZMAb was emblematic of that shift. Plans to continue producing the treatment at home in Canada, with taxpayer money, were abandoned in favour of leaving the project to Mapp Biopharmaceutical, even though Mapp had yet to make any significant quantity of the treatment. A similar fate nearly befell the Ebola vaccine developed by the NML: a 2020 report from researchers at Dalhousie University found “the private sector was not only unnecessary to its development, but also likely slowed it down.”

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In tightly controlled labs like the NML, there is a byzantine set of procedures, protocols and paperwork at the best of times. Some of that is related to safety, given the dangerous materials being handled. Guarding against theft and espionage is also a key concern—it’s why employees at the lab had to be vetted by CSIS for their security clearance before working at the NML.

But the new emphasis on commercialization meant a renewed focus on intellectual property. Scientists, however, felt like they were being asked to draw blood from a stone: researching rare infectious diseases, scientists explained to me, simply isn’t very lucrative or attractive to the private sector. Therapies and vaccines are really only useful during an outbreak, and during a pandemic they are often sold at cost or given away. There was a feeling that this new focus was hobbling what scientists saw as their humanitarian mandate.

“We were so ahead, so ahead on all fronts, to have lost all this advantage,” Kobinger says, is “unfortunate.” It wasn’t long after ZMAb that Kobinger sat down with Qiu to tell her he was quitting the NML. “I said, ‘Qiu, listen, we will lose all this ground,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘If I want to continue to have a chance to contribute, [I need to] just leave and go into academia.’ ” Kobinger left for the Université Laval in 2016. Last year, he was appointed director of the prestigious Galveston National Laboratory, a BSL-4 facility in Texas.

Qiu stayed. And, thanks to her breakthrough on ZMAb, she was receiving calls from around the world, looking to collaborate. There was particular interest from China, which had recently completed work on its first level-4 lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A mix of global ambition and domestic concerns, following the 2003 SARS outbreak, meant Beijing was looking to beef up its domestic virology research.

Canada was bullish on the idea of deeper ties with China. The National Research Council, for example, was happy to provide one of its proprietary cell lines to help Chinese researchers develop new vaccine platforms—even heralding a breakthrough Ebola vaccine in 2018 as a prime example of “strategic R&D collaboration.” (Ottawa would later try to partner with that manufacturer, CanSino, on a COVID-19 vaccine, only to see the deal fall apart when China froze shipments of the vaccine amid political tensions.)

Qiu was an asset in building scientific relationships. She had been in Canada since the mid-’90s, but hailed from Tianjin, China—just south of Beijing—and had obtained her medical degree and master’s of immunology in China. When the World Health Organization asked Canada for personnel to help prepare for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Qiu was chosen to go. Over her years in the lab, she regularly partnered with researchers in China on strategies to beat viral epidemics caused by Ebola and coronaviruses.

One colleague told Maclean’s that Qiu recognized her identity might be a complicating factor—especially in a lab where a security clearance was a must. She worked harder and was especially cautious, the colleague says, “because she was a woman. Because she was Chinese.”

Some of that caution would prove to be warranted. Ottawa’s relationship with China cooled significantly in 2018 with the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, followed by the retaliatory and arbitrary arrests of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Long-simmering concerns about Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft suddenly rocketed to the forefront.

(Illustration by Ben Shmulevitch)

(Illustration by Ben Shmulevitch)

Qiu wasn’t oblivious. When her name appeared on patents submitted to the China National Intellectual Property Administration—two breakthroughs in treating Ebola and the related Marburg virus, which built on her published work—she quickly informed her bosses to say it was done without her knowledge or permission, a former colleague says. It was a recognition of her contribution to the field of research, Qiu explained, not evidence of her clandestine cooperation with a foreign lab. (Indeed, Qiu regularly collaborated with researchers in China on Ebola countermeasures, as did others in the lab.)

But the focus on commercialization and intellectual property meant another layer of scrutiny: making sure that Canada retained ownership and credit for everything it reasonably could claim ownership and credit for. A former colleague says Qiu, and some of her colleagues, sometimes found themselves at odds with the intellectual property office. While Qiu was “extremely hardworking,” they say she was sometimes guilty of “playing a little bit fast and loose with the rules.” But, they stress, Qiu wasn’t the only one who bristled at the idea of worrying about paperwork and intellectual property rules, as scientists tried to make breakthroughs that promised to save thousands, maybe millions, of lives. “Scientists are a weird bunch,” the former colleague says. “They’re willing to take the [funding] . . . but don’t like the idea of following all the rules.”

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The sudden shift in relations with China likely increased the scrutiny on Qiu’s work, they say. They posit that a combination of an “arrogant attitude toward rule following” and her “not understanding the geopolitical ramifications of cooperating with your home country” may have gotten her into this mess.

Qiu’s former colleagues say the Ebola shipment was, indeed, what got Qiu in trouble with her bosses—not because she secretly collaborated with Beijing, but because she finally ran afoul of the lab’s obsession with intellectual property.

In May 2018, Qiu wrote an email to David Safronetz, head of the Special Pathogens program at the lab. A colleague at a government-run lab in Wuhan, she wrote, “has contacted me for possibility to receive [Nipah] and Ebola viruses from us. If possible, what paper work needs to be done beside the import permit from them and export permit from us? MTA?”

An MTA, or Material Transfer Agreement, governs the terms under which one lab might share a sample with another: it can dictate, for example, that the lab providing the sample owns the material in perpetuity. It could also require that any innovations or discoveries that come as a result of the sample must also be owned by the lab that provided the sample, and set terms on what kind of research could be forbidden.

“I don’t understand why MTA [has to be] in place in this case if PHAC doesn’t request it?” Qiu wrote. Given that the viruses were collected from outbreaks in West Africa, she posited, “no one owns the IP.”

There was a debate in the lab about whether the agreement was necessary. “Personally I don’t believe in MTAs for these materials,” Safronetz wrote. Matthew Gilmour, then head of the NML, weighed in some months later: “[MTAs] would be required, not generic ‘guarantees’ on their storage and usage.” Yet, far from being skeptical or hostile toward the Chinese lab, Qui’s bosses seemed excited by the prospect of building better ties with the BSL-4 lab in Wuhan. “Are there materials that [the Wuhan Institute of Virology] have that we would benefit from receiving? Other [viral hemorrhagic fevers]? High path flu?” Gilmour wrote.

Safronetz assured his boss that the transfer agreements, and all other paperwork, would be filled out. The shipment left Toronto in late March 2019. “We can confirm that we have all records pertaining to the shipment, and that all protocols were followed,” one email reads. The virus sample arrived without serious incident.

The MTA, however, was never signed. That is likely where things went off the rails for Qiu. While she may have believed that no one can own a naturally occurring virus, and one that was collected in West Africa, that is not Canada’s position. Ottawa believes if it comes from a government freezer, it belongs to the government. By not signing an MTA, Canada would likely not be able to lay claim to whatever discoveries the Chinese researchers made using the NML’s sample.

When Iain Stewart, the then-head of PHAC, was called before a parliamentary committee in May 2021 to shed light on the investigation, he stressed that “the fact that the transfer of the viruses took place—which, again, was done in compliance with internal policies and proper approvals—is not connected to the departure of the two employees.” An MTA, he explained, was not explicitly required, as it “is not a safety requirement but a document that provides a mechanism for transferring controlled materials from one party to another, primarily to safeguard intellectual property rights.”

Talking points developed by PHAC, written after Qiu was removed from the lab, read that an MTA was not required, as the agency was looking to promote “relationship building with [the Wuhan Institute of Virology], sharing done to foster robust global health agenda by enabling scientific advancements on pathogens with potentially significant societal consequences.” (Those media lines also tried to downplay Qiu’s work on ZMAb, reading: “PHAC’s contribution to addressing Ebola goes beyond any one individual.”)

The transfer of the virus itself may not have been the reason for their departure, but just four months after the virus was sent to Wuhan, Qiu and Cheng were escorted out of the lab.

Not long after their removal, in 2020, the government began requiring MTAs for all sample transfers, “for clarity to employees and safeguards for our science.”

At least some colleagues inside the lab believe that reasoning, despite PHAC’s carefully worded denial that the firings were not related to the shipment itself, Qiu’s position that Canada had no intellectual property claim to its viral samples is what got her in trouble. One of Qiu’s former colleagues, who spoke to Qiu in the weeks after her removal from the lab, says paperwork for the shipment “not done the right way” was the catalyst for her removal. From there, things “snowballed.”

***

The removal of Qiu and Cheng from the NML could not have come at a worse time. Less than a year later, the Wuhan lab became the centre of suspicions that the COVID-19 virus had originated there and leaked out. Investigations by the World Health Organization and the United States intelligence community have failed to turn up any concrete proof and both concluded that, barring new evidence, the theory that COVID-19 emerged from nature without human involvement is the right one. That did little to assuage skeptics.

At ZeroHedge, a conspiracy website known to peddle Russian government misinformation, Qiu’s removal from the lab became evidence of a broader plot: “Did China Steal Coronavirus From Canada and Weaponize It?” one headline asked.

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Project Evidence, an oft-cited open source repository of supposed proof for the theory that COVID-19 escaped from the lab, devotes an entire page to Qiu. “We ask you, the reader, to use your best judgment to determine if an investigation into a minor clerical or bureacratic [sic] error, such as a misplaced form, would take nearly a year to conclude,” the anonymous authors write, concluding: “We believe it is far more likely that this investigation involves matters of national security.”

In the House of Commons, the Conservative Party has seized on Qiu’s background and links to China as evidence of something nefarious. “Can the Prime Minister tell this House how a person with deep connections to the Chinese military obtained a high-level Canadian security clearance?” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May 2021.

But the accusations smacked of a conclusion in search of evidence. Qiu’s “deep connections” to the Chinese military consist of a handful of academic papers, published in reputable journals, that she co-authored with scientists working at the Chinese government’s Academy of Military Science.

That sort of cooperation was hardly uncommon prior to the chilling of relations in 2018. According to a document tabled in the House of Commons, there were six different papers published in recent years as collaborations between the Chinese military lab and the NML. There are more than a half-dozen authors listed on those papers, apart from Qiu, who continue to work inside the Government of Canada. One paper does not bear her name at all. (And collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Military Science goes back to before 2015, under the Conservative government in which O’Toole was a minister.)

Conservative members of Parliament have further called Qiu’s removal an “odd coincidence” in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, winking to the theory that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab, and accusing the Trudeau government of a “cover up” and “corruption” in the case.

***

Information may continue to trickle out about Qiu’s case and how Canadian intelligence agencies have probed her possible ties to Beijing. But given how fiercely the Liberal government is fighting to withhold this information, which includes classified material, the full story likely won’t be known for some time. The Conservatives seem determined to weaponize the case to prove the Trudeau government’s alleged inaction in tackling Chinese espionage—the lack of solid evidence is an asset in that effort.

It’s been 2½ years since Qiu and Cheng were removed from the lab. It’s been a year since they were actually fired, in January 2021. And yet they have yet to be formally accused of anything, and it’s not known if they have retained legal counsel. Maclean’s made repeated entreaties to the federal government to discuss Qiu and Cheng’s firing but was refused. It’s not clear whether the couple is still in Canada or whether they have decamped to China, where they still have family.

In Winnipeg, their home stands testament to the limbo the couple have been caught in. Their combined six-figure salaries went toward two things, a former colleague says: their children, and purchasing their dream home. The couple took possession not long before they were escorted from the lab by the RCMP. Sitting in their home after being suspended from the lab, they fretted about making mortgage payments on the $1.2-million property. Qiu told their former coworker: “We have worked all our lives for the house you’re in.”

Qiu’s former colleagues continue to believe that this was a bureaucratic snafu that was allowed to spiral into international imbroglio. As one colleague puts it, laughing: “I never got the impression she was a sleeper agent.” Other observers see the hallmarks of China’s dogged efforts to build its own scientific expertise by stealing others’ work. Whatever the explanation, it’s high time for Ottawa and the RCMP to clarify what, exactly, Qiu is alleged to have done. At a time when Canada sorely needs to maintain trust in its scientists, the mystery of the fired biologists has only allowed conspiracy and suspicion to fester.


This article appears in print in the March 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The Qiu files.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.





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