The teamwork required in the pressure cooker of the COVID-19 pandemic may have been what Canada’s National Microbiology Lab needed to start healing rifts between staff and management and improve what has been described as a toxic workplace, according to the Winnipeg lab’s acting scientific director general.
“As the pandemic has continued to evolve, we’ve had to personally and professionally… really expand on every part of our learning,” said Guillaume Poliquin.
“As we’ve come across small challenges, large challenges, evolving viruses, the rollout of vaccines, all of those things have required us to learn lessons on the fly and to very much dig deep into our resilience here as an organization.”
That’s involved long days, “and sometimes it feels like weekends aren’t a thing anymore,” he told CBC in an interview.
“Obviously that has a toll on staff. But at the same time, it’s been so incredibly rewarding to be able to play such an important role in Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Poliquin took over from former head Matthew Gilmour last May at Canada’s only Level 4 lab — meaning one equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases, such as Ebola.
He leads an institution with a long history of scientific achievements, life-saving research, and a central role in fighting outbreaks of Zika, Ebola, H1N1 and SARS.
But he also inherited a workplace described as “toxic” in an external 2019 workplace health assessment report.
The lab is also the subject of an RCMP investigation into a possible policy breach involving two scientists, who were evicted from the facility in July 2019.
Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, biologist Keding Cheng, were let go from the Public Health Agency of Canada in January. Neither the department nor Poliquin will say why, citing confidentiality.
How those scientists will be replaced will be a test of whether things have changed since a 2020 internal review found the lab did not track how it hires and promotes staff or how perceptions of favouritism have been affecting employee morale.
In a statement, the Public Health Agency said improvements have been made and a recent review of the the lab’s staffing practices concluded that “staffing processes consistently respected legislation and policy requirements.
“The NML continues to consult with bargaining agents, employees and management on innovative staffing solutions.”
The Union of Health and Environment Workers disputes that.
Raising staffing concerns at meetings is not consultation, which “happens before a decision is made and not after,” said Shimen Fayad, the union’s national president.
Microbiology lab management may be following the letter of human resources policies, but “from the staff’s perspective, that doesn’t mean it’s done fairly and above board,” she said.
For example, the union says it’s seen an increase in non-advertised appointments being filled because of operational requirements, sometimes by people without the necessary experience, expertise and credentials.
“[It] shows either a shallow pool of experience and a lack of succession planning at the NML or it purposely shuts out most staff from applying and advancing their careers,” Fayad said.
“People are frustrated and demoralized.”
Poliquin sees it differently. He said the pandemic has provided an opportunity for staff to take on new challenges outside their formal job descriptions.
“There’s been a lot of opportunity for growth here at NML in response to this pandemic and that’s been something that I think staff have really appreciated,” he said.
The lab has developed a personnel co-ordination unit whose job is to match staff with opportunities to develop new skills.
“That’s not only been great from from a learning and career development standpoint, but it’s been essential to our ability to maintain that nimble workforce to respond to the pandemic,” Poliquin said.
He also defended the ongoing scientific collaboration with countries such as China, saying the lab does not have infinite resources, and it’s more important than ever to have international partners.
“A virus arising in one part of the world under the right circumstances can spread and cause a society-reshaping event like we are living through now. And viruses don’t respect borders. Infections don’t respect borders,” he said.
“As a global community, we have to continue to work together to be able to support one another, to be able to respond to these events, because we can’t do it alone.”
However, Poliquin acknowledged that collaboration with China has been used in pandemic-related conspiracy theories.
Travel documents obtained by CBC News found Qiu made at least five trips to China in 2017-18, including one to train scientists and technicians at China’s newly certified Level 4 lab in Wuhan.
Qiu also sent a shipment of some of the world’s deadliest pathogens to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2019, just four months before she was evicted from the lab. There were no coronavirus samples involved.
Poliquin categorically said there is no connection between the Winnipeg lab and the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What I would encourage Canadians to do is to be mindful of the source of information and to be aware that not all information is credible,” he said.
“We’ve been at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus, not contributing to its development.”
That fight, which includes supporting the work being done in labs across the country, is something Poliquin is proud of, and he says his staff should be too.
“We’ve all been so busy.… It’s been less of a time to sit back and reflect on our successes and more of a time to put our heads down and get the work done,” he said.
“I think there will be a time and a need to celebrate everything that was achieved.… But the work isn’t done yet.”