Canadian Ebola drug inventors worked with Chinese firm but it was about saving lives, top biologist says

It’s unlikely any aspect of the National Microbiology Laboratory’s work is being traded to China, since treating relatively rare diseases is far from lucrative

Xiangguo Qiu is presented a 2018 Governor General’s Innovation Award by Governor General Julie Payette for her work creating the Ebola drug Zmapp. MCpl Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall

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A Canadian researcher who was suddenly dismissed from a federal lab recently worked with a Chinese company that copied a breakthrough Ebola drug she helped discover.

But it was definitely not a case of economic espionage, says the leading biologist who spearheaded development of the medicine.

Gary Kobinger said both he and Xiangguo Qiu co-operated with MabWorks while they were at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML). The Beijing firm was up-front about what it had done – despite the drug being under patent – and probably saved lives by increasing production of the experimental product at its own cost, he said.

Kobinger urged the federal government to be more transparent about the reasons for Qiu’s removal from the Winnipeg lab, and squelch speculation that has focused largely on the researcher’s ties to her native China.

It’s unlikely any aspect of NML’s work is being traded to that country, since treating relatively rare diseases like Ebola is far from lucrative, and their research is all published openly, anyway.

“The angle that is coming out of this I think is unfortunate. This angle of paranoia, that people are stealing and this and that,” said Kobinger, who left the lab three years ago to assume a Canada research chair at the University of Laval. “It’s a bit sad, it’s kind of politicizing science, because of tensions between two countries.”

Kobinger said the role of the lab – which has built a stellar international reputation – was hazy when he was there, and that could be behind Qiu’s troubles.

“A lot of people in government thought it was not good that NML was doing research. And some other people were thrilled about it,” he recalled. “This is where I could see a lot of misunderstandings and problems … The government is good at making new policies and it’s frequent that a new policy may contradict another one.”

An unconfirmed report by CBC says that Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng – also a biologist at the NML – and her entire research team of students, were escorted from the facility July 5.

The level-four unit at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is one of a small number worldwide that work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens. Michel Comte/AFP/Getty Images/File

The Public Health Agency of Canada has said only that it is looking into an “administrative matter,” and advised the RCMP on May 24 of “possible policy breaches” at the lab. The University of Manitoba said it suspended Qiu’s appointment as an unpaid adjunct professor “pending an RCMP investigation.”

Under Kobinger’s leadership, the pair developed “monoclonal antibodies” that have shown promise against deadly Ebola. Their discovery comprises two of three elements in ZMapp, a drug being developed by a California company, Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. It has yet to receive regulatory approval.

Though no evidence has emerged of any wrongoing by Qiu, U.S. authorities have warned repeatedly lately about the danger of scientists with Chinese connections helping Beijing illegally acquire intellectual property and trade secrets.

Kobinger said he does not believe his former colleague would do anything of the sort, despite their co-operating with Beijing’s MabWorks after it admitted to using data posted online in patents to copy the treatment.

In fact, the company ended up collaborating both with the Canadian researchers and Mapp Biopharmaceutical, he said.

“When the guy called me, I remember very well, he was nervous and he said, ‘You know we took the sequences online, we just wanted to see if we could make them,’ ” recalled Kobinger. “They were (later) just giving the stuff away for free … So I think an argument could be made that lives were saved by this company that decided to make some product when we didn’t have enough in North America. It’s great what they did.”

For now, he said, the sudden ejection of Qiu from the Canadian lab will only cause uncertainty among those who work in the field.

“I think this is going to be a chill on the scientific community,” said the biologist “I think it’s not good for government scientists, I don’t think it’s good for science in general.”

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