Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and committee members, for the invitation to appear before the committee today.
As you know, on June 2, the House of Commons issued an order for unredacted documents pertaining to the transfer of viruses from the National Microbiology Lab, or NML, to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019, and the nature of the departure of two NML scientists.
We appreciate Parliament's desire for scrutiny of this matter and, of course, value the role of parliamentarians in holding government accountable.
At the same time, we are responsible for ensuring that sensitive material is protected and that the proper mechanisms are in place to safeguard any personal and security-related information. In this particular case, we have endeavoured to comply with the intent of the order while also respecting the law and ensuring that privacy and security-related information is, indeed, properly safeguarded.
Accordingly, on June 4, I referred this matter to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians for its review. At that time, the Public Health Agency of Canada also provided that committee with the unredacted documents requested by Parliament.
I welcome this opportunity to explain how the Government of Canada arrived at that decision. I underscore, however, that there are matters that are under consideration by the Speaker and the House on the same issues. These matters will be addressed in those forums.
I would like to begin with a few words about the National Microbiology Lab, which provides and continues to provide critical scientific leadership for Canada in response to COVID-19.
Right now, for example, the NML is conducting more than 100 research studies on COVID-19, which range from designing and testing vaccines to investigating treatments to understanding the genetic fingerprint of the virus.
International collaboration is an essential part of this scientific work, and throughout the pandemic the NML has worked with its partners, both inside and outside of Canada, to combat this disease.
I'll reiterate that the two former employees named in the order are no longer employed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Further, as I had noted previously in the House, there is no connection between the transfer of viruses cited in the order and the subsequent departure of these employees, and there is no link to COVID-19.
I cannot disclose any additional information for privacy and security reasons, but I can say that the National Microbiology Lab will continue to play a critical role in protecting the health and safety of Canadians.
The Government of Canada is committed to transparency in its work, and we endeavour to be as open as possible with Parliament and Canadians while at the same time protecting sensitive information. It is a balancing act that requires us to consider countervailing laws and duties and the public interest.
In this case, the Public Health Agency of Canada has appeared before this committee twice to answer questions to the extent possible. It has also responded promptly to all requests for information, while respecting its obligations under the laws passed by Parliament. More broadly, senior officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada have made almost 30 committee appearances since May 2020, and as minister, I have appeared some 25 times since the pandemic began.
We are and we remain committed to being as responsive and available as possible to parliamentarians.
The Government of Canada recognizes that the oversight provided by Parliament is essential to a well-functioning government. We respect the need for transparency and the importance of accountability before Canadians.
However, in this particular case, the information requested has both privacy and national security implications. Complying with the order without having proper safeguards in place would put sensitive information at risk of being released publicly.
That's why I've referred this matter to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. This committee has the statutory mechanisms and protections needed to safely review sensitive information while maintaining its confidentiality.
As I mentioned at the outset, I've already provided the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians with the material requested. The Public Health Agency of Canada will co-operate with the committee as it conducts its review.
Thank you very much.