Prime Minister Stephen Harper is defending Ottawa's contribution to the battle against Ebola in West Africa, dismissing criticism from both opposition parties about the government's decision to auction off protective gear that was desperately needed in the region hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak.
"The truth is that Canada has given $2.5-million worth of equipment, essential equipment, to the fight against Ebola, particularly 1.5 million [gloves], many respiratory masks and roughly two million other forms of protection," Mr. Harper said in the House of Commons Monday. "We are going to continue to help the front-line workers around the world to fight Ebola."
The Prime Minister was responding to questions from Liberal MP Marc Garneau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, both of whom demanded Mr. Harper explain why the Public Health Agency of Canada auctioned off an estimated $1.5-million worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) for about $30,000 through a government website between February and August of this year.
GlobalMedic, a Canadian disaster-response charity that offered to deliver the equipment on Canada's behalf, reached those figures by analyzing publicly available data from the auction website, GC Surplus.
"While people in Africa are dying by the thousands," Mr. Mulcair asked, "why was this government getting rid of urgently needed medical supplies for a fraction of their value?"
Health Minister Rona Ambrose said at a news conference earlier Monday that when the World Health Organization asked for donations of PPE in early September, the auctions were halted.
Ottawa has so far pledged $65.4-million to the fight against Ebola. On Monday, the Ontario government announced it would donate $3-million to aid agencies working in the crisis zone.
Canada has also deployed two teams of scientists to staff mobile diagnostic laboratories in Sierra Leone, and promised 800 vials of an experimental Ebola vaccine to the World Health Organization, the first batch of which was shipped to the WHO in Geneva on Monday.
Concerns have been raised over how long it look NewLink Genetics, the small Iowa biopharmaceutical company that holds the licence for the vaccine, to bring it to phase I safety trials. Those trials began last week – about a month later than a competing vaccine being developed by the drug maker GSK.
The WHO wants to see data from tests on healthy human volunteers before it deploys any Ebola vaccine to West Africa.
On Monday, The Canadian Press cited an Ottawa law professor who said it appears from filings the company made with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that NewLink paid just $205,000 to license the vaccine from the Canadian government, which retains the intellectual property rights to a vaccine developed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
When Mr. Mulcair asked during Question Period if that figure was accurate, Mr. Harper declined to answer that part of the question.
As the epidemic continues to rage in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the few aid organizations that are operating on the ground have been begging the world for more medical personnel to treat the sick.
Ms. Ambrose said Monday that the Canadian government will not send any medical staff to the outbreak zone until it has a guaranteed way to fly them home if they fall ill. Some air-ambulance companies are refusing to fly into the outbreak zone. Ottawa has an agreement with a private American air ambulance company, Phoenix Air, to evacuate Canadian medical personnel, but several countries are relying on the same airline.
"It's one thing to have an arrangement, but if there was more than a few people sick, a number of countries would be in a very difficult position to get people back to their countries safely," Ms. Ambrose said.
With reports from Canadian Press, Adrian Morrow and Dakshana Bascaramurty