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Chinese researchers stripped of security clearance at Canada lab for deadly human diseases

Sophia Yan
Xiangguo Qiu and her research team were escorted away from the lab

Researchers from China were stripped of their access to Canada's National Microbiology Lab, which works on some of the world’s most deadly human and animal pathogens.

Canada’s national police force said it is investigating “possible policy breaches” by Xiangguo Qiu, a scientist from China, her husband Keding Cheng, a biologist at the same lab, and a group of her students who were escorted from the facility earlier this month.

The Public Health Agency of Canada first advised authorities of potential issues in late May. A spokesman has said there is no risk to the public and that it is looking into an “administrative” matter. The agency has declined to provide further details.

However, the investigation comes amid a diplomatic row between Canada and China. It also highlights growing global security concerns involving foreign scientists over confidentiality, intellectual property and collaboration – a longtime hallmark of research and academia – particularly with state-funded research.

Qiu is a prominent virologist who helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the Ebola virus, which killed around 11,300 people in West Africa between 2014 to 2016. Mr Cheng’s research has included HIV, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), E.coli infections and the Creutzfeldt-Jakob Syndrome.

Ethnic Chinese scientists have faced particular scrutiny recently in the US as concerns of espionage and intellectual property theft have grown alongside a protracted trade war between Beijing and Washington.

Areas potentially at risk are very broad – artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, antibiotics, even seeds for food crops.

Meia Nouwens, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, said governments are now starting to consider how broad their definition of defence or national security needs to be.

“It’s not only aircraft carriers and battle tanks anymore,” she said.

Three senior cancer researchers were ousted earlier this year in the US, after being informed they had committed potentially “serious” violations of agency rules involving the confidentiality of peer review and disclosure of foreign ties.

In April, FBI director Christopher Wray argued for a need to double down on a “whole-of-society” response, including efforts by the Chinese government to infiltrate government-funded research and innovation.

Corporate and economic espionage has long been a concern when it comes to China – three years ago, a Chinese national was sentenced for trade secret theft for conspiring to steal inbred corn seeds, considered proprietary information.

Earlier this year, Oxford University cut ties over security concerns with Huawei, a Chinese telecoms company at the centre of a global espionage row. University chancellor Lord Chris Patten also warned in January of security risks in joint academic research projects.

Rising political rhetoric against China has raised fears that ethnic Chinese scientists and researchers might be subject to greater scrutiny and discriminatory treatment.

Still, governments, universities and research institutes around the world need to consider what research partnerships will look like going forward.

“If you collaborate with a Chinese research institute or a Chinese university, then where does that IP belong?” said Ms Nouwens.

“This is a question that China is looking at as well. Research communities benefit from collaboration...[but] there needs to be a clear framework of understanding abut how that research is conducted, what the limits of collaboration are.”