Canada’s Biosecurity Scandal: The Risks of Foreign Interference in Life Sciences

That has raised the question, still unanswered, of why the scientists, though suspended in 2019, were not let go until January 2021, despite such an adverse finding having been made against them in June 2020.

Could this same lapse in security happen in Australia? The question raises a difficult issue, the personnel security arrangements around life sciences research, especially where that research is considered to be high-risk to national security or to the general public.

For example, the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, run by the CSIROrequires anyone accessing its labs to have a security clearance. But whether a clearance is needed for similar labs in VictoriaNew South Wales or Queensland isn’t clear. And even security clearances don’t seem to be enough: both Qiu and Cheng held clearances to work at NML, but still engaged in a whole range of potentially compromising and questionable behavior.

Nor does the veil of complete secrecy over biosecurity research appear to be working. According to Global Biolabs, a service that tracks high-security disease labs around the world, Australia is home to four labs just like NML that can handle the deadliest diseases in the world. While there is no evidence that any have had problems like NML’s, we might never know even if they did.

Ebola (along with diseases like anthrax, SARS, and the bacteria that cause botulism and tularaemia) is classified as a security sensitive biological agent, so any such work on such agents that goes on at these labs is secret. Even unauthorised identification of which labs work on such agents is a crime. Freedom of Information requests for those details can be ignored. And, if such evidence could ever make it to court, the government could seek orders to have proceedings heard in secret.

Since 2020 academics have been the target of foreign intelligence and military services. That threat is increasing, according to ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess. An analysis in 2021 showed that more than 300 Australian academics were enrolled in Chinese talent recruitment programs, raising concerns about China’s access to Australian technology. Participation in such programs isn’t illegal, but it can raise significant concerns about conflicts of interest and potential access to sensitive information. And even steps taken to publicize foreign arrangements don’t seem to have discouraged collaborations with potentially adversarial governments.

In November 2023 Australia’s most prominent funding body, the Australian Research Council, took steps to beef up research security. But these steps don’t seem to have been matched by either the CSIRO or National Health and Medical Research Council, some of the biggest supporters of life-sciences research in Australia. And, even if they were, such steps wouldn’t apply to labs that funded their own research.

Biotechnology is just one of Australia’s critical technologies. If Australia wants to avoid the Canadian experience, it needs to embed personnel and physical security checks into the conduct of all of its high-risk research. Universities and funding bodies need to share the risk and due diligence investigations with government, especially intelligence agencies. And, when red flags arise, law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to respond swiftly and provide authoritative and comprehensive guidance to research entities on their next steps.

Brendan Walker-Munro is a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University. The views expressed here are personal and do not those of represent the university or any other organization, agency or government. This article is published courtesy of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).