Federal officials in charge of the National Microbiology Lab defended security protocols at the Winnipeg institution against accusations from MPs of bureaucratic incompetence Friday. 

"We acted as expeditiously as we could, given the information that was available," Public Health Agency of Canada head Heather Jeffrey said Friday.

She testified at the House committee on Canada-China relations as it probes Ottawa's handling of two researchers at the Winnipeg lab, who left Canada after their security clearances were revoked over questions about their loyalty and potential coercion by Beijing.

Records tabled in Parliament in February say the scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, played down their collaborations with Chinese government agencies before the agency fired them in 2021.

The documents also show the Canadian Security Intelligence Service concluded that Qiu repeatedly lied about the extent of her work with institutions of the Chinese government, and that she refused to admit involvement in various Chinese programs even when evidence was presented to her.

The spy service described Qiu as "reckless in her dealings" with various Chinese entities, "particularly in her lack of respect for proper scientific protocols regarding the transfer of pathogens and in working with institutions whose goals have potentially lethal military applications" contrary to the interests of Canada.

The RCMP are undertaking a national-security investigation, though Qiu and Cheng have not been prosecuted for any criminal charge in relation to the allegations. Jeffrey says both are Canadian citizens and they have requested a review of Ottawa's decision to revoke their security clearances.

On Monday, MPs representing the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and even a Liberal grilled officials over why Qiu was allowed to undertake sensitive work while they were under investigation.

"The scientists hid, and in fact lied about, those affiliations, and when they were discovered, those scientists were terminated," she testified.

Bloc MP René Villemure told the committee he is "stunned" that no PHAC employees have faced consequences, after Jeffrey suggested only the two scientists had been disciplined. 

"Make your choice, was it negligent or incompetent?" Villemure asked.

New processes and policies have been put in place to allow the agency to detect  "efforts to disguise collaboration and affiliations and other motivations as quickly as possible in the future," Jeffrey said. 

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith repeatedly asked whether these updated protocols would have stopped the unauthorized shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China's Wuhan Institute of Virology. She responded that she couldn't answer a hypothetical question.

Erskine-Smith pressed officials on why Qiu was able to send a parcel without anyone raising questions, given she was already under investigation at the time. 

"How could there possibly not be red flags?" he asked.

Guillaume Poliquin, who took over the Winnipeg lab months after the two scientists were fired, did not admit any fault in the way Ottawa handled the situation. 

"These were allegations, and further investigation was ongoing," he responded.

Conservative MP Michael Chong said he's hopeful bureaucrats will follow through on pledges they made in their testimony to provide MPs with a timeline on when cabinet was made aware of security breaches at the lab.

"What we are trying to accomplish here at this committee is to understand why it took 10 months to secure the lab, which seems an inordinately long period of time," he said.

MPs need to understand the flow of information and intelligence within the government, Chong said, so Ottawa can react to any similar incident much faster in the future. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.