Head of National Microbiology Laboratory resigns after scientist safety scandal

The head of the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg has announced he is stepping down to continue his medical work and accept a position with 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 handle the most serious and deadly diseases in humans and animals.

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

“This decision did not come easily and followed much introspection,” Poliquin wrote.

“It has been a wild ride. It was truly the greatest honor of my career to be asked to do this work during the pandemic and I hope I have fulfilled the task with some success, knowing that there is always more work to be done and improvements need to be made.”

Poliquin is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases. He has conducted research on several vaccines, including one that prevents pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis in children in the north.

He said his goal for the past four years has been to get the lab through the COVID-19 pandemic and its “extraordinary demands.”

Poliquin said his successor must “hit the road and travel” to “rebuild the city.” [the lab’s] connections with external partners and stakeholders,” something he said he was unable to do due to clinical and family commitments.

Poliquin’s last day is August 2. When asked about his resignation at an event in Winnipeg on Thursday, federal Health Minister Mark Holland said he was late for another event and would not comment.

A later statement from the health minister’s office wished Poliquin well in his efforts.

“Dr. Poliquin led the NML and PHAC with distinction for four years [the Public Health Agency of Canada] 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 leaves an event in Winnipeg on Friday.  He wanted the dismissal of Dr.  Guillaume Poliquin of the National Microbiology Lab did not confirm.
Health Minister Mark Holland leaves an event in Winnipeg on Thursday. He wanted the dismissal of Dr. Guillaume Poliquin of the National Microbiology Lab did not confirm. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

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 about spying and lab safety.

A Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) assessment released by the federal government this spring found that Dr. Xiangguo Qiu used Canada’s Level 4 laboratory “as a base to help China improve its ability to combat highly pathogenic pathogens” and “achieved brilliant results.”

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

Poliquin did not refer to the scandal in his resignation email. But for years, opposition members have demanded information about what the scientists’ supervisors at the lab and their political bosses in Ottawa knew about their activities.

According to the email, after Poliquin steps down, Dr. Howard Njoo will assume acting responsibilities while the search for a replacement continues. Poloquin said he will remain on a part-time basis as a special advisor to support these initiatives until his successor is “settled in.”

“I love this place. I love the science. I love the people. I will forever be in awe of what a united NML has been able to achieve during the pandemic. Although it is my time to leave stage left , I’m 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 that Poliquin will begin as Assistant Registrar for the Complaints & Investigations Department from August 6. He replaces Dr. Karen Bullock Pries, who retires on June 30.

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