Canada’s Secret History with Germ Warfare

In recent weeks international media coverage of the Ebola outbreak has dipped. This does not suggest that the severity of the outbreak has been overlooked, but highlights rather the partial ability of the media to influence public perception of events with an international concern. Even still, by now most are aware that Canadian scientists worked diligently and effectively to invent and produce one of the world’s most promising vaccines against Ebola. Most are not aware, however, that Health Canada recognized the need for an Ebola vaccine nearly a decade ago and assigned scientists with the Public Health Agency of Canada to isolate one.

In a Special column to The Globe and Mail, economist Jim Stanford claims that nearly ten years ago Canadian scientists patented a vaccine that prevents Ebola in monkeys. Rather than praise the scientists behind this important invention, the Canadian government opted to hand the vaccine over to the private sector. In 2010, to be specific, Ottawa licensed the Ebola vaccine to a small U.S. firm called NewLink Genetics. Despite the best investigative efforts of Stanford, who asked “Health Canada to explain how the licensing was negotiated, and how much Canada was paid,” the specifics of vaccine sale remain unclear. But monetary amounts from financial statements filed by NewLink report it paid Canada up to $205,000 for the vaccine and agreed additionally to royalty fees payable on future commercial sales.

In his column, Stanford laments the ability of the global market to negatively impact the medical industry. He even quotes the University of Ottawa’s Amir Attaran, an expert on drug policy and public health, to make his point: “This could have been a heroic Banting and Best moment for Canadian science, but instead it is a black comedy.” Stanford’s argument is clear and his writing concise, but most will not argue against his reference to Bating and Best.

For those who are unaware, Frederick Banting won a Nobel Prize in Medicine with John Macleod in 1923. The two were awarded the prize specifically for the discovery of insulin. Banting chose to share the prize with his colleague and friend Charles Best, and the story has since been claimed to Canadian history as an international achievement. But Banting was involved in other research activities that are not so well known or publicized, namely war-related weapons creation.  

Canada and their allies have a long history of attempting to deal with the threat of germ warfare, which has been considered one of the most fearful weapons since the close of the Second World War. But Canadian involvement in bacteriological weapons creation predates the onset of the postwar period. Both in terms of its national research and testing programs, Canada has, since the interwar years, been involved actively in various military aspects of weapons creation. Although the theatre of the Second World War was Europe, alliance partnerships with the United States and United Kingdom in particular, forced Canada to be heavily involved in collective allied war measures. These efforts spilled over into the postwar period, proliferating in large part as response to Western intelligence which suggested the Soviet Union was leading the way in the creation of unconventional weapons technology.  

To be clear, biological warfare as defined during the Second World War and into the Cold War constituted the use of living organisms and natural poisons or toxins to cause debilitation in humans, animals, or plants that may have in some cases resulted in death. By this definition, it’s worth pointing out that biological weapons are often improperly equated with chemical and nuclear weapons. In reality biological weapons are quite different based on the fact that they are composed strictly of or derived from organisms which have the ability to replicate inside a host, be transmitted and inflict mass casualties.

Biological warfare was first integrated into military strategy on a large scale during the Second World War, but nation states have long used various form of infectious disease and germ warfare to inflict sickness, casualties and death. In fact, prior to the onset of world war in the twentieth century, total numbers of those killed on battlefields paled by comparison to the number of deaths caused globally by disease. This is not to downplay the severity of war, nor the incredible toll of human sacrifice that it entails.  It’s merely an important distinction derived from statistical data analysis which should not be overlooked.

For many Canadian scientists, the horrifying experience of trench warfare during the Great War strongly influenced their professional and personal lives. This was certainly the case for Frederick Banting, who served with the No. 13 Canadian Field Ambulance. Most are probably not aware, however, of Banting’s legacy with war-related weapons research. As a prominent medical researcher at the University of Toronto in the interwar period, Banting was integral to the establishment of Canada’s National Research Council’s Associate Committee on Medical Research (ACMR). Under his tutelage, ACMR not only carried out various and extensive medical research, but also developed close ties with American and British organizations in war-related research. Allied efforts in this regard were in reaction to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which stipulated international law against the creation and use of biological and chemical weapons but not bacteriological weapons. Throughout the 1930s Germany, Japan, and Russia began exploring the military possibilities of germ warfare, and as a result so did the US, UK, and Canada.

Weapons creation, as already noted in this blog, continued through the Second World War and into the Cold War. Canada’s unique contribution came in the establishment of research and testing facilities, which were constructed under the guise of defence but which had a distinctly offensive agenda. Under a veil of secrecy which historians have only recently begun to remove, successive Canadian governments in the postwar years funded research into war-related weapons creation. Most of this research was conducted at Suffield, Alberta. Suffield is today a Canadian military base located not too far from Medicine Hat, but for most of its history it was used as a secret testing site for various weapons of a biological, chemical, and bacteriological nature. As more evidence becomes available through the declassification of government records, historians will be able to revisit and reinterpret the past to shed light on peoples and topics that have for various reasons largely eluded the public eye. Banting’s involvement in the creation of Canada’s weapons testing programs does not discredit his work and achievement with the discovery of insulin, but his professional record should be understood in its full and proper context. The same can be said of Canada’s history in germ warfare, which should be discussed rather than hidden.