Unspeakable, an eight-part original miniseries from CBC and SundanceTV, tells the story of the Canadian tainted blood scandal that rocked the nation during the 1980s and 1990s. As an untold number of Canadians received life-saving transfusions, they were unwittingly exposed to HIV and Hepatitis C. This led to one of Canada's biggest public health crises ever.
Based on the real-life tragedy of individuals involved, Unspeakable aired in early 2019. The true story behind Unspeakable is full of blame, greed, and unnecessary suffering, serving as a reminder of the international HIV crisis while simultaneously raising questions about the trust placed in the medical community and agencies tasked with public protection.
Unspeakable offers a very different look at Canada - one that may shock you when you realize how such a horrific series of events came to fruition.
Canada Had To Import Blood During The 1970s And 1980s Because It Couldn't Meet National Demands
To treat individuals with Hemophilia A, doctors gave transfusions of blood and plasma rich in factor VIII. Some donated blood was put through the fractionation process to isolate factor VIII, but there was still an unmet demand among hemophiliacs. As a result, scientists developed a genetically-engineered factor VIII during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Canadian Red Cross, which controlled blood donations and supply in Canada at the time, didn't have enough blood and plasma available for transfusions for hemophiliacs, trauma victims, or other patients in need. To combat this, they began purchasing from external suppliers.
As early as 1977, the Canadian Red Cross bought several brands of factor VIII concentrate, more than half from manufacturers in the United States. The Red Cross made contracts with Hyland, Armour, and Cutter laboratories. One domestic group, Connaught, worked with these entities to obtain and distribute blood and plasma in Canada.
The Canadian Government And The Red Cross Didn't Test The Blood Due To Expense
The Canadian Red Cross, a self-regulated entity, attempted to limit dependence on outside blood and plasma sources. Between 1979 and 1982, the Canadian Red Cross requested government funds to support domestic plasmapheresis - the screening of blood and removal of harmful antibodies - but failed to receive the money needed from the bureaucratic network. As a result, cost-cutting measures prevented adequate protections when it came to blood being used in Canada.
The slowness in taking appropriate measures to prevent the contamination of the blood supply was in large measure the result of the rejection, or at least the non-acceptance, of an important tenet in the philosophy of public health: action to reduce risk should not await scientific certainty. When there was reasonable evidence that serious infectious diseases could be transmitted by blood, the principal actors in the blood supply system in Canada refrained from taking essential preventive measures until causation had been proved with scientific certainty. The result was a national public health disaster.
Similarly, the Canadian Red Cross didn't begin testing donated blood until late 1985 after five cases resulting in loss of life from AIDS were reported from tainted sources. Prior to this, differing opinions on paths forward and competing interests among agencies and companies prevented any agreement on how to ensure the safety and security of Canada's blood supply. One of the later determinations of the inquiry into the scandal determined that the Red Cross neglected to test for Hepatitis C even though there were reliable processes available.
Concerns Over Tainted Blood From US Sources Didn't Lead To Any Recalls
In 1978, Canada-based Connaught began buying plasma from sources in Massachusetts, California, and other US sites. This was then supplied to the Canadian Red Cross. From the perspective of Canadian entities, using plasma from the US meant the materials were vetted by the Food and Drug Administration. More than six million units of plasma were brought in, but there was no inspection of the locations from which US companies obtained the blood by Canadian officials.
What Connaught didn't know until later was that their US suppliers were obtaining blood from inmates at prisons. When it became known in the US that blood from prison inmates in Arkansas tested positive for hepatitis in 1983, Connaught canceled its contract with the supplier - but they did not recall the potentially tainted supply.
That wasn't the only problematic source, however. Concern over blood from San Francisco being contaminated with AIDS was again met with no response because it was "believed that all the material distributed" had been used and no further action was required.
In 1985, as concerns over the dry-heat treatment used on Armour's H.T. Factorate grew, the company itself hid research from the Canadian government and the Red Cross about how their process was flawed. Had they acknowledged this, it could have prevented an unknown number of infections.
As Many As 20,000 People Were Infected With Hepatitis C
Exact numbers vary, but it's estimated that roughly 20,000 people contracted Hepatitis C as a result of the tainted blood distributed throughout Canada during the late 1970s and 1980s.
Robert C. Cooper, a Toronto native and the creator of Unspeakable, contracted Hepatitis C during this time. He remembered how he "was afraid to let anybody know I was hemophiliac because of the stigma attached to it and how people reacted."
Part of the reason Cooper made Unspeakable was to ensure that people will remember the story.