Canada cuts off funding to international AIDS vaccine project

OTTAWA — Canada has pulled the plug on funding to one of the largest AIDS vaccine development agencies in the world, the Winnipeg Free Press reported March 31.

Between 2001 and 2008, the Canadian International Development Agency contributed nearly $80 million to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, one of the biggest backers of HIV vaccine trials in the developing world. Canada was one of IAVI's major funders.

In 2009, Canada contributed nothing to the organization and said funding was under review. There was no money again in this year's federal budget and no decision on whether IAVI will ever receive Canadian funding again.

"IAVI was informed in July 2009 that CIDA funding priorities are under review, and that no further commitments could be made at that time," an IAVI spokeswoman told the Winnipeg Free Press.

A spokeswoman for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda reiterated that sentiment in a statement recently e-mailed to the Free Press.

"CIDA continues to focus its efforts as part of the aid effectiveness agenda," Jessica Fletcher said. "As such, we are currently reviewing all of our programming. No decision has been made yet on the future of this program."

Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS Free World in the United States and former U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said the global AIDS research community now knows Canada can't be counted on to help.

"This government is now abandoning one of the greatest vaccine initiatives in the world," said Lewis, who is on the board of IAVI. "I just think it's unconscionable."

IAVI President Dr. Seth Berkley has thus far received no response to three letters he sent Jan. 25 to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Oda and Industry Minister Tony Clement asking them to reinstate the funding.

"CIDA's ongoing support is critical in sustaining the momentum in the search for an AIDS vaccine," wrote Berkley in the letters.

He said Canada's funding has helped leverage other support. In 2007, when Canada announced its own Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative, Canada committed that the CHVI "would not compromise Canada's international support of AIDS vaccines."

The CHVI is a $139 million, five-year joint venture between Canada and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was announced to great fanfare in February 2007.

But three years later, less than $9 million has been spent on CHVI, including almost $700,000 on a proposed $88 million vaccine production facility that was scrapped last month. The Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases was the front-runner for the facility.

IAVI was also one of the partners of that Winnipeg-based bid.

Lewis said Canada presumably has $88 million from the vaccine facility it could use to reinstate its funding of IAVI.

"They have the money and they allegedly have the interest, but [the government is] now abandoning what is absolutely necessary in dealing with AIDS," Lewis said. "Ultimately, the only thing that is going to end this virus is a vaccine."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Public Health chief Dr. David Butler-Jones have both said they are examining all the options for how to spend the CHVI money now that the production plant is off the table.

Both say it was cancelled when none of the bidders met all the criteria and the Gates Foundation produced an analysis suggesting such a facility was no longer needed.

The focus is still on helping develop a vaccine for AIDS, a spokeswoman from PHAC said.

NDP health critic and Winnipeg MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis said the government obviously has no clue about the global realities of the AIDS epidemic.

"Cutting the vaccine production facility is a blow to Canada's international reputation as a leader in AIDS research and now we will be embarrassingly absent from the global call for continued research into HIV prevention," said Wasylycia-Leis.