The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (AFP / Michel Comte)

Chinese ‘spies’ did not steal deadly coronavirus from Canada

Websites and social media users claim that the new coronavirus discovered in the city of Wuhan may have been created in Canada and stolen by Chinese spies. This is false; Canadian health and federal police officials say it has no factual basis.

“Corona virus developed in Canada and stolen by China?” reads the headline of this article from January 22, 2020. It appears to be the first of a series of such claims about the novel coronavirus, which caused an outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading elsewhere in the country and around the world.

Screenshot of a misleading headline on a blog taken on January 30, 2020

Other social media users soon shared similar versions of the claim, referring to the investigation of two Chinese virologists in Canada in 2019. Kyle Bass, an American hedge fund manager who is currently shorting Hong Kong’s currency, falsely claimed on Twitter that a “Chinese spy team” sent pathogens “to the Wuhan facility.” He was retweeted 12,000 times, and screenshots of the tweet were shared on Facebook.

Screenshot of a tweet taken on January 30, 2020
Screenshot of a tweet taken on January 30, 2020

 

The claims appear to be based on a mischaracterization of August 2019 reports about a transfer of Ebola and Nipah viruses from a Canadian lab to Beijing, and an apparently separate issue involving two Chinese researchers at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, in the central province of Manitoba.

The NML is part of the federal Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), whose senior media officer Tammy Jarbeau told AFP by email that “this is disinformation. (These) statements made on social networks have no factual basis.”

The RCMP investigation

In July 2019, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that two researchers with ties to China were removed from the NML in Winnipeg by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for a possible “policy breach.” The article did not mention the coronavirus.

Robert Cyrenne, spokesman for the RCMP in Manitoba, told AFP by email that “there is no connection between the outbreak in China and any RCMP investigation. Any reporting of such is misinformation.”

Cyrenne confirmed to AFP that the investigation involving the researchers is still ongoing.

Dr Xiangguo Qiu, who helped develop a treatment for the Ebola virus, her husband Keding Cheng, a biologist who has published papers on coronavirus strains such as SARS-CoV, and Chinese students working under them had their security access revoked for Canada’s only level-4 lab, a facility equipped for research on the deadliest diseases.

The virus transfer

Claims that the novel coronavirus was created in Canada refer to another report involving the NML. One month after Qiu, Cheng and the students were escorted off premises, CBC reported that live Ebola and Nipah viruses had been shipped to Beijing in March 2019 for research.

PHAC officials told CBC that all procedures were followed for the shipment of those level-4 pathogens, the deadliest. But the short interval between the Air Canada flight they were transported on and Qiu and Cheng’s removal led to suspicion that the two events could be connected.

The RCMP declined to comment on any potential connection between the investigation and the virus shipment to Beijing. 

Bass’s tweet claims that Qiu was suspended for sending pathogens to Wuhan. In fact, the two pathogens were sent to Beijing, and were not coronaviruses. 

The University of Manitoba, with which Qiu and Cheng were affiliated, has ended their non-salaried appointments and re-assigned the students working with them, a spokesperson told the Canadian Press

The RCMP did not comment on the current whereabouts of Qiu and Cheng for privacy reasons.

At least 213 people have died and nearly 10,000 people have been infected in China by the new coronavirus while fresh cases were found abroad with more than 20 countries now affected.

In Canada, four cases were confirmed at the time of publication, and foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne announced on Friday that China’s foreign minister approved the return of 200 Canadians currently in Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic.

The new coronavirus has been the subject of many hoaxes and conspiracy theories around the world in January 2020. AFP debunked several of them, which you can read here.