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Scientists let go from National Microbiology Laboratory amid RCMP investigation – CBC.ca

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Two Canadian government scientists escorted from the National Microbiology Laboratory amidst an RCMP investigation and internal review have been let go from the Public Health Agency of Canada, CBC News has learned.

“The two scientists are no longer employed by the Public Health Agency of Canada as of Jan. 20, 2021,” Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and PHAC, confirmed in an email late Friday.

“We cannot disclose additional information, nor comment further, for reasons of confidentiality.” 

Sources say members of the lab’s special pathogens unit were called to a meeting on Thursday and told that Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, will not be returning to work. They were not given an explanation.

Cheng, Qiu and her students from China were removed from Canada’s only Level 4 lab in July 2019 over what was described as a possible “policy breach” and administrative matter.

Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were escorted from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg on July 5, 2019. After that, the University of Manitoba ended their appointments and reassigned her graduate students. (Governor General’s Innovation Awards)

The Public Health Agency of Canada had asked the RCMP in Manitoba to get involved several months earlier.

A Level 4 virology facility is a lab equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. That makes the Winnipeg lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling pathogens requiring the highest level of containment, such as Ebola.

As recently as December, the RCMP said the investigation was ongoing but that there is no threat to public safety.

Sources say the couple have been off work with pay, living in Winnipeg, but PHAC has never confirmed that, citing confidentiality.

Developed Ebola treatment

Qiu is a medical doctor and virologist from Tianjin, China, who came to Canada for graduate studies in 1996. She is still affiliated with the university there and has brought in many students over the years to help with her work.

She helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016.

She was head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies Section in the Special Pathogens Program at the Winnipeg-based lab.

Her husband is a biologist who has published research papers on HIV infections, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), E. coli infections and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. 

The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is the only Level 4 facility in Canada, equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Last year, documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request found that Qiu was responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology four months before she and her husband were escorted from the NML.

At the time, PHAC said the shipment and Qiu’s eviction from the lab were not connected.

“The administrative investigation is not related to the shipment of virus samples to China,” Morrissette wrote in an email last June.

“In response to a request from the Wuhan Institute of Virology for viral samples of Ebola and Henipah viruses, the Public Health Agency of Canada sent samples for the purpose of scientific research in 2019.”

No connection to COVID-19

The RCMP and PHAC have consistently denied any connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus shipments. There is no evidence linking the shipment to the spread of the coronavirus. Ebola is a filovirus and Henipah is a paramyxovirus — no coronavirus samples were sent.

Qiu also made at least five trips to China in 2017-18, including one to train scientists and technicians at China’s newly certified Level 4 lab, which does research with the most deadly pathogens, according to travel documents obtained by CBC News in October 2019.

Despite RCMP and PHAC denial of connections, there have been conspiracy theories stating otherwise. One medical expert says we need more transparency on the issue.

Canadians have the right to know more, said Amir Attaran, a professor in the faculty of law and School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.

“This adds to the appearance that NML staff acted improperly, and perhaps illegally, when they exported Canada’s collection of Ebola virus to a lab in Wuhan, China, totally without any scientific justification that NML cares to offer,” Attaran said.

“It is a deeply suspicious transaction that deserves powerful, but not politicized, parliamentary scrutiny when it comes to an extremely lethal virus.”

The former head of the NML, Matthew Gilmour, left last July to work for the U.K.-based Quadram Institute Bioscience.

His medical adviser, Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, took over until a permanent replacement can be found.

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Trudeau says he discussed border with Biden, but no deal

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday he has spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden about how to lift pandemic-related border restrictions between the two countries but made clear no breakthrough has been achieved.

U.S. and Canadian business leaders have voiced increasing concern about the ban on non-essential travel in light of COVID-19 that was first imposed in March 2020 and renewed on a monthly basis since then. The border measures do not affect trade flows.

The border restrictions have choked off tourism between the two countries. Canadian businesses, especially airlines and those that depend on tourism, have been lobbying the Liberal government to relax the restrictions.

Canada last week took a cautious first step, saying it was prepared to relax quarantine protocols for fully vaccinated citizens returning home starting in early July.

Trudeau, speaking after a Group of Seven summit in Britain, said he had talked to Biden “about coordinating measures at our borders as both our countries move ahead with mass vaccination.” Canada is resisting calls for the border measures to be relaxed, citing the need for more people to be vaccinated.

The United States is ahead of Canada in terms of vaccination totals.

“We will continue to work closely together on moving forward in the right way but each of us always will put at the forefront the interests and the safety of our own citizens,” Trudeau told a televised news conference when asked the Biden conversation.

“Many countries, like Canada, continue to say that now is not the time to travel,” Trudeau added, though he said it is important to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible.

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Will Dunham)

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Man with 39 wive dies in India

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A 76-year-old man who had 39 wives and 94 children and was said to be the head of the world’s largest family has died in north east India, the chief minister of his home state said.

Ziona Chana, the head of a local Christian sect that allows polygamy, died on Sunday, Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram and who goes by one name, said in a tweet.

With a total of 167 members, the family is the world’s largest, according to local media, although this depends on whether you count the grandchildren, of whom Ziona has 33.

Winston Blackmore, the head of a polygamous Mormon sect in Canada, has around 150 children from 27 wives – 178 people in total.

Ziona lived with his family in a vast, four-story pink structure with around 100 rooms in Baktawng, a remote village in Mizoram that became a tourist attraction as a result, according to Zoramthanga.

The sect, named “Chana”, was founded by Ziona’s father in 1942 and has a membership of hundreds of families. Ziona married his first wife when he was 17, and claimed he once married ten wives in a single year.

They shared a dormitory near his private bedroom, and locals said he liked to have seven or eight of them by his side at all times.

Despite his family’s huge size, Ziona told Reuters in a 2011 interview he wanted to grow it even further.

“I am ready to expand my family and willing to go to any extent to marry,” he said.

“I have so many people to care for and look after, and I consider myself a lucky man.”

 

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Adnan Abidi in New Delhi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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Huawei CFO seeks publication ban on HSBC documents in U.S. extradition case

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Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on Monday will seek to bar publication of documents her legal team received from HSBC, a request opposed by Canadian prosecutors in her U.S. extradition case who say it violates the principles of open court.

Meng’s legal team will present arguments in support of the ban in the British Columbia Supreme Court.

Meng, 49, was arrested at Vancouver International Airport in December 2018 on a warrant from the United States, where she faces charges of bank fraud for allegedly misleading HSBC about Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s business dealings in Iran and potentially causing the bank to break U.S. sanctions on business in Iran.

She has been under house arrest in Vancouver for more than two years and fighting her extradition to the United States. Meng has said she is innocent.

Lawyers for Huawei and HSBC in Hong Kong agreed to a release of the documents in April to Meng’s legal team on the condition that they “use reasonable effort” to keep confidential information concealed from the public, according to submissions filed by the defense on Friday.

Prosecutors representing the Canadian government argued against the ban, saying in submissions filed the same day that “to be consistent with the open court principle, a ban must be tailored” and details should be selectively redacted from the public, rather than the whole documents.

A consortium of media outlets, including Reuters News, also opposes the ban.

The open court principle requires that court proceedings be open and accessible to the public and to the media.

It is unclear what documents Huawei obtained from HSBC, but defense lawyers argue they are relevant to Meng’s case.

Meng’s hearing was initially set to wrap up in May but Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes granted an extension to allow the defense to read through the new documents.

Hearings in the extradition case are scheduled to finish in late August.

 

(Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver; Editing by Howard Goller)

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