We locate ourselves at a precarious time in global overall health. Several persons are anxiously awaiting their turn to receive a vaccine for COVID-19, nonetheless roll-out is slow and disorganized, with a lot of nations around the world facing provide shortages.


The situations are ripe for opportunists to exploit the scenario. Studies of unethical line-leaping by rich elites have started off to surface area, when many others warn of the probable for a black-market place trade in vaccines.

This isn’t the initially time men and women have waited anxiously for a vaccine. The wanting-glass of record reveals the uneasiness of emotion that accompanies moments like these, as nicely as the darkish implications that can crop up when evil-doers consider gain of them.

One particular circumstance in unique stands out as an important lesson for nowadays: when 1000’s of vaccine doses have been stolen by armed guys during a supply shortage in 1959.

The polio epidemic

It was the summertime of 1959, when the very last good epidemic of poliomyelitis swept throughout Canada. Québec noticed the most circumstances that yr, with the newspapers reporting around a thousand instances and 88 deaths.

Although the health and fitness authorities in Montréal warned the general public about the seriousness of the summer season epidemic, they also begged the populace to remain quiet. This was considerably from comforting for dad and mom who feared for their children.


Polio infection could cause long term paralysis and was fatal in 5 % of conditions. Montréalers rushed to the vaccine clinics, at times ready for several hours in the rain.

Vaccine creation in Canada was constrained to only two laboratories, with the vast majority getting delivered by Connaught Labs at the College of Toronto. This put intense stress on vaccine supplies and Québec, like the relaxation of North The united states, shortly confronted a vaccine shortage.

polio vaccine headline newspaper(The Montreal Gazette)

Earlier mentioned: Headline photographs exhibiting the lone lines of people today waiting around to get a Salk vaccine. ‘The Montreal Gazette,’ Aug. 11, 1959.

A planned theft

By August, Montréal was ready desperately for far more vaccines. It was a excellent reduction when a large cargo of the cherry-crimson vials arrived from Connaught Labs at the conclude of the month. The offer was plenty of to deal with the town, and the surplus was prepared for redistribution across the province.

Still the redistribution hardly ever arrived to pass. Just one man by the name of Jean Paul Robinson, a short term vaccine employee, had found the situation as well attractive.

Robinson experienced been tasked with functioning vials among the numerous clinics. He realized there was a scarcity and that people were determined. He also knew exactly where the key offer of vaccine was saved: at the Microbiology Institute in the University of Montréal.


At 3 am on 31 August 1959, Robinson and two accomplices broke into the college armed with revolvers. They first locked the night time guard in a cage with 500 lab monkeys. The thieves then broke the lock on the substantial fridge, looted all the situations of the vaccine and stole the guard’s car or truck as the getaway auto.

In the stop, they produced absent with 75,000 vials, valued at CA$50,000 (equal to almost $500,000 right now). Robinson rented an empty condominium constructing and stashed his prize.

The criminal offense shocked the country. The upcoming working day, the town announced it experienced absolutely run out of its vaccine supplies. Reporters seized on the situation, publishing stories of determined moms turned away from vaccine clinics in vain.

The provincial law enforcement had been termed in, and a specific four-gentleman workforce of investigators was assembled. They started by interviewing the hapless night time guard. He could not determine the culprits – who experienced been donning nylon leggings more than their faces – but he did overhear them talk about transporting the vaccines. The dialogue presented the only direct: it appeared that at least just one of the guys experienced been “common with healthcare terms”.


The police before long introduced in a clinical college student for questioning. By the subsequent working day, they had seized a supply of refreshing vaccine from the cabinets of a Pont-Viau drug shop. The confiscated vials shown the exact same serial variety as the missing supply.

But questioning the two the health care pupil and the druggist led the law enforcement nowhere, and in excess of the next couple days, all prospects ran dry. Even worse however, it appeared that the town was facing an upswing in infections, with another 36 patients admitted to healthcare facility.

Danger and capture

Meanwhile, Robinson was seeking to determine out what to do with his unwell-gotten provide of vaccine. Preserving the product or service chilly was a difficult job – if remaining unrefrigerated for much too extended, the vaccine would be ineffective.

He filled the refrigerator (conserving a person shelf for beer), while the rest of the instances ended up just still left on the flooring at space temperature. While he experienced been fortunate to offer 299 vials for a tidy sum of $500 to the druggist at Pont-Viau, dispensing with the rest of the vaccine was also dangerous.

Taking a likelihood that the police were far more interested in recovering the vials than catching the culprit, Robinson put a phone to the general public law enforcement line. Posing as a worried citizen, he declared that he had noticed a large total of suspicious circumstances labelled “Connaught Laboratories” staying loaded out of a car or truck on St. Hubert Street in the East Conclusion.

The law enforcement speedily identified the lacking circumstances of vaccine, but just before they could be utilized, the vaccines would have to have to be tested extensively. This process could just take up to two months, which means the vials could not be applied even with the epidemic. Contemporary shipments of the vaccine were not planned to arrive for a couple far more months.

The public achieved the end result of the investigation with outrage, with the Montréal Star likely so far as to speculate that the law enforcement experienced produced a deal with the guilty get-togethers in get to get better the vaccine. Actually, it declared, “in the heritage of justice in Canada, this situation have to be unprecedented.” The stolen vaccines were eventually cleared for basic use in October.

For their element, the law enforcement were much from finished investigating. They quickly turned their attention to figuring out the culprit. They discovered that the person who experienced offered the police suggestion was also the person who experienced marketed the Pont-Viau druggist his 299 vials.

Proof continued to mount against Robinson when the janitor of the condominium making determined him. Following denying all charges, Robinson fled. He was found a few weeks afterwards hiding out in a little drop on an “isolated backroad farm.”

file 20210125 13 327pxz(Victoria Day by day Occasions)

Previously mentioned: The vaccine heist of 1959 shocked the Canadian public and built headlines throughout the nation. ‘Victoria Day by day Situations,’ Aug. 31, 1959.

‘Beyond sensible doubt’

Prosecuting Robinson turned out to be a a lot harder activity, and the situation finally fell apart. While a person of his accomplices experienced at first determined Jean Paul Robinson as the mastermind of the heist, when the trial arrived close to two decades later on, the witness recanted his primary assertion (he would later be billed with perjury).

Robinson himself proved imperturbable all through courtroom interrogations. He painted himself a general public-spirited citizen who experienced only tried using to “retrieve” the stolen vaccines from the correct prison mastermind: a mysterious guy by the title of Bob. Robinson claimed that Bob experienced established the entire detail up in advance of he experienced disappeared and escaped justice.

The decide ultimately dominated that whilst Robinson’s tale was “unusual and a small significantly-fetched,” in the finish, “the Crown experienced not verified a situation further than a acceptable doubt” and he was acquitted.

As thousands and thousands of persons all over the world anxiously await the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, this scenario warns of the probable penalties of disorganized and poorly planned vaccine applications. Those wanting to income from errors, shortages and desperation are out there, and it is essential that coverage makers maintain this in thoughts as vaccination systems are rolled out. The Conversation

Paula Larsson, Doctoral Scholar, Centre for the Background of Science, Medication, and Technological innovation, University of Oxford.

This write-up is republished from The Conversation less than a Creative Commons license. Go through the primary post.