Head of National Microbiology Lab resigns in wake of scientist security scandal

The head of the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg says he is stepping down to continue his medical work and take a position at  the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, CBC News has learned.

Since 2020, Dr. Guillaume Poliquin has overseen Canada's only Level 4 virology facility, which is equipped to deal with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases.

Poliquin announced his resignation to staff in an internal email on Tuesday.

"This decision did not come easily, and followed a lot of introspection," Poliquin wrote.

"It has been a wild ride. Truly, it has been the greatest honour of my career to be asked to do this work during the pandemic and I hope I availed myself of the task with some modicum of success, recognizing there is always more work to be done and improvements to be made."

Poliquin is an infectious disease pediatrician who has conducted research for several vaccines, including one that prevents pneumonia, blood poisoning and meningitis among children in the North.

He said his goal over the past four years was to get the lab through the COVID-19 pandemic and its "extraordinary demands."

Poliquin said his successor will need to "be out and about and travelling" to "rebuild [the lab's] connections to external partners and stakeholders," something he said he couldn't do because of clinical and family obligations.

Poliquin's last day will be Aug. 2. When asked about the resignation at an event in Winnipeg Thursday, Health Minister Mark Holland said he was late for another event and wouldn't comment.

A statement provided later from the Health Minister's office wished Poliquin well in his endeavours.

"Dr. Poliquin has led the NML with distinction for four years and [the Public Health Agency of Canada] PHAC is grateful to him for his service," Christopher Aoun wrote.

A competition to fill the position on a permanent basis was launched this week, he added.

Health Minister Mark Holland leaving an event in Winnipeg Friday. He would not confirm the resignation of Dr. Guillaume Poliquin from the National Microbiology Lab.
Health Minister Mark Holland leaving an event in Winnipeg Thursday. He would not confirm the resignation of Dr. Guillaume Poliquin from the National Microbiology Lab. (Trevor Brine/CBC News)

2 NML scientists fired 

Poliquin led the NML during a tumultuous time. CBC News first broke the story in 2019 of two staff scientists who were investigated and later fired after one of them sent a shipment of deadly viruses to China, sparking a political firestorm over concerns of espionage and laboratory security.

An assessment by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service CSIS), released by the federal government this spring, found Dr. Xiangguo Qiu was using the Level 4 lab in Canada "as a base to assist China to improve its capability to fight highly-pathogenic pathogens" and "achieved brilliant results."

Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, have never been reached for comment.

Poliquin did not reference the scandal in his resignation email. But, for years, opposition MPs have demanded information on what the scientists' supervisors in the lab and their political bosses in Ottawa knew about their activities.

Following Poliquin's resignation, according to the email, Dr. Howard Njoo will assume acting responsibilities during the search for a replacement. Poloquin said he will stay on part-time as a special adviser to support those initiatives until his successor has "settled in."

"I love this place. I love the science. I love the people. I will forever be in awe of what a unified NML was able to accomplish over the pandemic. While it is my time to exit stage left, I am excited to see where the NML goes next," Poliquin wrote.

Neither Poliquin nor Njoo were made available for interviews.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons confirms Poliquin will start his job as assistant registrar for the Complaints & Investigations department starting Aug. 6, replacing Dr. Karen Bullock Pries who retires June 30.