The head of the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg has suddenly resigned to work with a bio-research institute in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Matthew Gilmour is leaving to work for the Quadram Institute Bioscience, and will be filled in for by his adviser, Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, until a permanent replacement can be found, according to Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.
“Join me in wishing Dr. Gilmour and his family the very best as they embark on this exciting journey,” Tam said in a series of tweets late Thursday, amid her usual stream of postings about the coronavirus pandemic.
Poliquin is an infectious disease pediatrician and has conducted research for several vaccines, including one that prevents pneumonia, blood poisoning and meningitis among children in the North.
He is a senior medical adviser for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), working in the special pathogens division at the NML, and as a medical adviser to Gilmour.
The Quadram Institute said in a statement Gilmour will lead a group researching Listeria.
Gilmour started working at the NML, Canada’s highest-level containment lab, as a junior research scientist in 2004.
According to earlier statements from both PHAC and the federal government, Gilmour trained with physicians as a clinical microbiologist in 2012 and revamped NML’s core values to include the importance of working directly with communities on public health.
In 2015, he succeeded Dr. Frank Plummer as head of both the NML in and the Laboratory for Foodborne Zoonoses in Guelph, Ont. The job involves managing the delivery of laboratory public health and emergency preparedness programs, providing strategic scientific advice to officials and representing the lab nationally and internationally.
As a researcher, Gilmour worked on responses to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks and more recently, to COVID-19, though he has not been in the public eye very much during the pandemic.
Health Canada, which appeared to be caught off guard by his resignation, declined interview requests for Gilmour and Poliquin.
Steven Theriault worked with both men at the NML. He left two years ago to start Winnipeg-based Cytophage Technologies Inc., a company creating viruses that kill anti-microbial resistant bacteria.
“I wasn’t surprised that Dr. Gilmore was leaving,” Theriault told CBC News.
“When you talk to Matt, you always talk about science and he really is passionate about it … Maybe it was just the best opportunity for him to move forward again as a pure scientist … as opposed to running a building or running an entire program like that.”
Theriault predicts Poliquin will do a good job leading the lab through the pandemic, given his expertise in public health and vaccine development.
However, he noted Poliquin will take over an organization dealing with budget cuts, a hiring freeze, poor morale, and an on-going RCMP investigation into two scientists who were evicted from the lab last summer for what PHAC described as a “possible policy breach.”
Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng have been named in numerous conspiracy theories linking the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, the NML, and the infectious disease lab in Wuhan, China.
The RCMP and PHAC have consistently denied any connections.
Theriault said there are several people who would could lead the NML, including two former heads of the special pathogens program: Heinz Feldmann, now chief scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Gary Kobinger, director of the Research Centre on Infectious Diseases at Université Laval. They were responsible for successful Ebola vaccines and treatments while at NML.
However, Theriault recommended hiring someone outside of government, ideally someone familiar with private industry because “we’re moving in a different world of science.”
“There’s a lot of great scientists there. They just sometimes need a little push in the right direction,” he said.