Researchers' group slams decision to cancel HIV-vaccination facility

OTTAWA — The head of an association that represents Canada's HIV researchers is criticizing a federal government decision to scrap plans for an $83.5 million facility that would manufacture potential vaccines, the Winnipeg Free Press reported Feb. 24.

Dr. Bill Cameron, president of the Canadian Association of HIV Research, said this week that the move — which some have blamed on partisan politics — will make it difficult for academic researchers to test their work.

"You can't test a vaccine without a production facility," said Cameron, who's also an HIV researcher. "I'm disappointed."

The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed Feb. 19 it and the Gates Foundation would not be moving ahead with plans to build an HIV vaccine pilot manufacturing facility to produce experimental vaccines for clinical trials.

The facility was to have been the signature project of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative, a joint venture between Canada and the Gates Foundation announced to much fanfare three years ago.

The Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases was among the four finalists for the project and was told informally last summer it had won.

However the other finalists were told three weeks ago they hadn't met the criteria.

In explaining the decision, the Public Health Agency of Canada cited a July 2009 analysis by the Gates Foundation showing there are already enough manufacturers for test vaccines.

That analysis notes there are more suppliers available now than there were five years ago and fewer clinical trials are expected in coming years because scientists have added stricter criteria for advancing to the trial stage.

It acknowledged more research is needed to ensure the quality of the suppliers but also said only two out of 30 research experts consulted had issues with capacity for vaccine production available now or in the future.

Cameron said it's true the HIV vaccine research field has changed in recent months after two promising vaccines had "ho hum" results in clinical trials. However, he said introducing a new way for researchers to get their vaccines produced might have served as a creative spark to the field.

"Whatever we're doing is not working and I see nothing wrong with taking another approach," he said.

The vast majority of clinical trials of HIV vaccines currently take place with private-sector funding and manufacturing because there is very little manufacturing capacity available in nonprofit companies.

Cameron said private-sector trials are constrained by intellectual property and market considerations, which can limit the kind of research undertaken.

"I don't think that's the best way to find another creative research project," he said. "This is why we need a public facility. Personally, I'd like to see a vaccine facility constructed to meet the needs of academic researchers."

So far the Gates Foundation has remained silent about the issue. A spokesperson for the foundation directed media to the Canadian government for comment.

Terry Duguid, the former chief executive officer of Winnipeg bidder International Centre for Infectious Diseases, who is now running for the federal Liberals in Winnipeg South, said the government's explanations in this case are a "massive cover-up."

The Liberals on Feb. 23 demanded an independent third-party investigation of what happened, potentially by the auditor general.

Duguid said to turn away from the project because of a sudden discovery of capacity in private-sector drug manufacturing plants doesn't make any sense.

"The whole point of this facility was to have a not-for-profit facility for repeatedly and cheaply testing for vaccines," Duguid said. "It's not designed to make money. It's designed to break even."

Cameron added, "What have we accomplished?" he asked of the government's initiative in the Globe and Mail. "We delayed so long and we haven't got anything."