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A screenshot from a Canadian government surplus auction site shows completed auctions in May for medical isolation gowns.
A screenshot from a Canadian government surplus auction site shows completed auctions in May for medical isolation gowns.

As Ebola raged, Ottawa sold masks and gowns to highest bidder Add to ...

Ottawa continued to auction off stockpiled medical supplies to the public, even after the World Health Organization requested the protective gear amid an Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa.

Sales of so-called Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which includes surgical masks and isolation gowns, also apparently took place despite requests that are said to have been made this summer via both Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the U.S. and a Canadian aid organization for donations to equip front-line health-care workers. And some of the low-priced auctioned gear landed in the hands of entrepreneurs who then tried to hawk the items for a profit.

(Read The Globe's primer on West Africa's Ebola outbreak)

An estimated $1.5-million worth of stockpiled Health Canada medical supplies were auctioned for just a fraction of that figure, raising questions about the true value of Canada’s contribution to the global fight against Ebola – and Ottawa’s own handling of it.

In an e-mail late Sunday evening, a Public Health Agency of Canada spokesman explained that the government moved to halt the auctions on Sept. 4 after the WHO made a request for the protective gear.

But some of the supplies, which came, in part, from Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health stockpile, were sold before the regional branch in Manitoba was made aware of the WHO’s request. “Once they were [made aware], the remaining PPE was withdrawn from sale and donated to the WHO,” said spokesman Eric Morrissette.

Canada offered the protective gear to the WHO on Sept. 9. On Sept. 15, Health Minister Rona Ambrose announced Canada was donating “over $2.5-million” in protective gear to the WHO.

Whether those respirator masks, gloves, face shields and gowns are truly worth the price the government has quoted is questionable: According to an analysis of publicly listed data conducted by GlobalMedic, a Canadian charity that responds to international disasters, the government auctioned off an estimated $1.5-million worth of protective gear between February and August for a total of just over $30,000.

To date, Ottawa says it has committed $65.4-million to the fight against Ebola. On Monday, it will start shipping 800 vials of its experimental vaccine from Winnipeg to the WHO. The global body will “promptly” begin using the vaccine in affected countries as soon as human trials in various countries are completed in December and “safety is established,” a spokesman for the Geneva-based organization said in an e-mail Sunday.

Back in June, David Pratt, Canada’s Honorary Consul for Sierra Leone and a former Liberal defence minister, received a letter from Sierra Leone’s ambassador in Washington containing an urgent appeal for resources to manage the outbreak. The list of desired items included gloves and masks.

But since that request, Health Canada auctioned off 1.3 million masks and more than 209,000 gloves. One batch of 500,000 masks sold in late July for only $50. Many online retailers sell boxes of 50 for $8.

Mr. Pratt said he forwarded the list to the federal Minister of International Development. In response, one of the minister’s assistants e-mailed Mr. Pratt a link to a press release and backgrounder from April that stated the government had committed $1,285,000 to fight the outbreak.

“One would have hoped they would have perhaps reconsidered additional assistance at that point,” Mr. Pratt said in an interview

Rahul Singh, GlobalMedic’s director of emergency programs, learned of the auctions when he was trying to collect protective gear to ship to Sierra Leone in July. He was stunned.

“A lot of people that bought that stockpile contacted us,” he said. “[They were] trying to sell it to us at an enormous profit for them compared to what they bought it for.”

He said he called PHAC several times and urged them to stop the auctions, explaining that the goods that had been liquidated at bargain basement prices were worth far more and were desperately needed in West Africa. The auctions continued.

In September, Mr. Singh sent Ms. Ambrose a follow-up letter offering to transport any medical supplies the agency still had to Ebola hot zones. He did not receive a response and has since sourced his own PPE and sent two shipping containers of gear to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“We were pretty frustrated,” he said. “We were like, ‘Give it to us, we’ll get it where it needs to go.’”

When Mr. Singh searched for supplies to send to health and government partners in West Africa, he connected with many individuals who had bought protective gear from that auction and had marked it up 30 times above the price they’d paid (details on previous auctions are available publicly online, and Mr. Singh had found listings for more than 100 batches of PPE along with how much each had sold for).

Based on this information, Mr. Singh estimates 130 of the 150 pallets worth of PPE he has shipped to Sierra Leone and Liberia are items that originally came from Health Canada’s stockpiles.

Editor's Note: Health Canada auctioned the stockpiled Personal Protective Equipment, not the Public Health Agency of Canada, as was incorrectly reporter in the original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version. This online version has been corrected.

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