In July 2019, world-renowned biological researchers Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng were quietly walked out of the Canadian government’s National Microbiology Lab (NML). The original allegation against them was that Qiu had authorised a shipment to China of some of the deadliest viruses on the planet, including Ebola and Nipah.

Qiu and Cheng, a married couple, subsequently lost their security clearances and were then fired by the NML in January 2021. At the time, both were subject to investigations by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The NML said both had lost their positions for ‘breaches of policy’; it did not say what those breaches or policies had been.

Then the story seemed to go away—until now.

On 28 February 2024, after a legal battle in which the attorney-general of Canada took the speaker of the country’s House of Commons to court, the government finally released a trove of heavily redacted documents.

One document makes for stark reading. In a report dated 30 June 2020, the CSIS recommended that Qiu and Cheng lose their security clearances because of Qiu’s ‘… close and clandestine relationships with a variety of entities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is a known security threat to Canada; … complete lack of candour regarding her relationship with those institutions; and her reckless judgement regarding decisions that could have impacted public safety and the interests of Canada’.

The CSIS found that Qiu, whilst employed by the Canadian government, had:

—Signed on to China’s Thousand Talents recruitment program (under which she stood to be paid up to C$1 million) and had prepared applications for other talent programs in China;

—Travelled several times, with NML’s blessing, to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to train staff on biosecurity; and

—Published a peer-reviewed paper with a major-general in the People’s Liberation Army who held a position at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences and was ‘China’s chief biological weapons defense expert engaged in research related to biosafety, bio-defence and bio-terrorism’.

Perhaps the most concerning allegation was that in March 2019 Qiu had arranged for a shipment of 15 virus strains, including Ebola and Nipah, to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the act that ultimately led to her and Cheng’s suspension.

That has raised the question, still unanswered, of why the scientists, though suspended in 2019, were not let go until January 2021, despite such an adverse finding having been made against them in June 2020.

Could this same lapse in security happen in Australia? The question raises a difficult issue, the personnel security arrangements around life sciences research, especially where that research is considered to be high-risk to national security or to the general public.

For example, the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, run by the CSIRO, requires anyone accessing its labs to have a security clearance. But whether a clearance is needed for similar labs in Victoria, New South Wales or Queensland isn’t clear. And even security clearances don’t seem to be enough: both Qiu and Cheng held clearances to work at NML, but still engaged in a whole range of potentially compromising and questionable behaviour.

Nor does the veil of complete secrecy over biosecurity research appear to be working. According to Global Biolabs, a service that tracks high-security disease labs around the world, Australia is home to four labs just like NML that can handle the deadliest diseases in the world. While there is no evidence that any have had problems like NML’s, we might never know even if they did.

Ebola (along with diseases like anthrax, SARS, and the bacteria that cause botulism and tularaemia) is classified as a security sensitive biological agent, so any such work on such agents that goes on at these labs is secret. Even unauthorised identification of which labs work on such agents is a crime. Freedom of Information requests for those details can be ignored. And, if such evidence could ever make it to court, the government could seek orders to have proceedings heard in secret.

Since 2020 academics have been the target of foreign intelligence and military services. That threat is increasing, according to ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess. An analysis in 2021 showed that more than 300 Australian academics were enrolled in Chinese talent recruitment programs, raising concerns about China’s access to Australian technology. Participation in such programs isn’t illegal, but it can raise significant concerns about conflicts of interest and potential access to sensitive information. And even steps taken to publicise foreign arrangements don’t seem to have discouraged collaborations with potentially adversarial governments.

In November 2023 Australia’s most prominent funding body, the Australian Research Council, took steps to beef up research security. But these steps don’t seem to have been matched by either the CSIRO or National Health and Medical Research Council, some of the biggest supporters of life-sciences research in Australia. And, even if they were, such steps wouldn’t apply to labs that funded their own research.

Biotechnology is just one of Australia’s critical technologies. If Australia wants to avoid the Canadian experience, it needs to embed personnel and physical security checks into the conduct of all of its high-risk research. Universities and funding bodies need to share the risk and due diligence investigations with government, especially intelligence agencies. And, when red flags arise, law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to respond swiftly and provide authoritative and comprehensive guidance to research entities on their next steps.


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