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

Chinese ‘spies’ did not steal deadly coronavirus from Canada

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved

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, and experts say evidence indicates the virus has a natural origin. 

“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 12,500 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.

Natural origin of virus

In a letter published on February 19, 2020 in The Lancet medical journal, a group of public health scientists made a statement about the origins of the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens,” they said.

A team of scientists led by Shan-Lu Liu of The Ohio State University also concluded that there is no “credible evidence” that the virus -- officially known as SARS-CoV-2 -- was engineered in a laboratory, in research published on February 26, 2020.

According to the Canadian government, as of March 24, 2020, there were 1,959 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus infection across the country. Twenty-seven people have died.

​AFP Fact Check is focused on combating misinformation about COVID-19. A roundup of our work in this area can be found here.

Note: This article was updated on March 25, 2020 to add information on the origin of the virus from 
scientific sources and to update the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 in Canada.