The Canadian lab involved in a mysterious RCMP investigation around one of its most acclaimed scientists shipped samples of Ebola and another deadly virus to China earlier this year, says the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The other pathogen was henipavirus, an emerging family of bugs that inspired the Hollywood thriller Contagion, and which in real life has killed up to 100 per cent of people infected.
There are fears it could be weaponized or cause a widespread epidemic, according to a recent paper by agency researchers.
The viruses were provided to Chinese scientists as part of a “routine” sharing of infectious agents, fulfilling the National Microbiology Lab’s mandate to promote public-health research worldwide, said an agency spokesman.
Contrary to a recent news report, all appropriate precautions, including protections for the government’s intellectual property, were taken before the viruses were shipped, spokesman Eric Morrissette said.
It’s unclear if the transfer had anything to do with the reported dismissal last month of Xiangguo Qiu, a lab scientist who co-discovered a treatment for Ebola, or a related RCMP investigation.
“To advance scientific work worldwide, the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) routinely shares samples of pathogens and toxins with partner laboratories in Canada and in other countries,” said Morrissette in a statement. “These transfers follow strict protocols.”
Asked if the shipment was related to the recent, unusual events at the lab, Morrissette said the agency “continues to look into an administrative matter at the NML” and cannot comment further.
The Public Health Agency and police have shed little light generally on the situation, giving rise to much unconfirmed speculation.
There is evidence of more than just a one-off relationship between the Winnipeg laboratory and partners in China, at a time when concern is growing over economic and scientific espionage by Beijing.
Gary Kobinger, the scientist who collaborated with Qiu on the Ebola treatment — now part of an experimental drug called ZMapp — said their discovery was actually copied by a Chinese company, even though it was under patent. But he said the Beijing firm — Mabworks — was upfront about its unauthorized duplication, and ended up working with Canadian and American researchers on the project.
Kobinger dismisses the idea of economic espionage around the NML, noting its research is all made public, and that treating rare tropical diseases is far from a big money maker.
Reports from Winnipeg media indicate that Qiu, her husband, Keding Cheng, also a biologist at the facility, and Chinese students in her lab, were all escorted from the lab early last month.
The agency has said only that it is looking into an “administrative matter,” and advised the RCMP on May 24 of “possible policy breaches” at the NML. The University of Manitoba said it suspended Qiu’s appointment as an unpaid adjunct professor “pending an RCMP investigation.”
The force says it cannot comment on the investigation.
Quoting sources, the Winnipeg Free Press reported this week that a shipment of unnamed pathogens had been sent to China without safeguarding intellectual property.
Morrissette disclosed to the National Post that the shipment contained Ebola and henipavirus, but said all necessary precautions were followed.
The agency “took appropriate steps to ensure intellectual property protection , as is the case when laboratory samples are provided to other institutions,” he said. “PHAC’s intellectual property was not compromised by the sharing of this material.”
It’s unclear what intellectual property would be attached to a sample of a virus.
Henipavirus refers to two related viruses, Hendra and Nipah, both of which emerged within the past few decades.
Nipah has attracted the most attention. Transmitted from animals to people — but also able to jump between humans — it can cause acute breathing problems and encephalitis, potentially fatal brain inflammation.
First discovered in Malaysia and Singapore in 1998, there have also been small outbreaks in Bangladesh and India, with death rates ranging up to 100 per cent, and mostly over 50 per cent.
With potential for human transmission and no vaccine or treatment, “its threat to cause a widespread outbreak and its potential for weaponization has increased,” said a paper by NML scientists published last year.
In the Steven Soderbergh-directed Contagion, a virus modelled after nipah wreaks havoc worldwide, before scientists manage to develop a vaccine.