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Canada makes more cuts to HIV vaccine research

News comes on heels of decision to cancel vaccine facility in Canada

Flickr, abdallahh, CC licence

According to the latest budget, the federal government has ceased funding the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) through Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) grants. Canada funded nearly $80 million to the IAVI between 2001 and 2008.

NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis raised the question of the cuts in Question Period on Wednesday. Conservative Jim Abbott, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation, replied that no decision had been made to the funding at this time.

“This came as a shock because, in fact, when they announced an end to the vaccine production facility [in Winnipeg], they made a commitment that that wouldn’t stop work on the vaccine research,” says Wasylycia-Leis.

Wasylycia-Leis refers to the government’s cancellation of plans to build a vaccine production facility as part of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“To not continue what has been in the past regular funding to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative has been a huge blow, a huge loss to the international community, and unconscionable in the minds of those who work in this area.”

What further confounds Wasylycia-Leis is that there has yet to be an explanation for why the government cancelled the Canadian vaccine facility, which had $88 million in funding allocated toward it.

“The irony of all of this is that in 2007, we went after them for taking away funds from community prevention initiatives in the area of HIV and AIDS to fund this vaccine production facility, only now to be told they’re not going ahead with it, but don’t worry.

“Now we’re seeing neither a home-grown initiative nor a commitment to the international program, all of which is vital for the development of a vaccine at the very moment where we’ve actually made some breakthroughs in the research and when clinical trials are necessary.”

Liberal public health critic Kirsty Duncan describes the frustration she experiences trying to get information about the cancellation of the CHVI facility.

“Where I’m struggling is three years ago this was planned, and then they undertake a due diligence study this past July,” says Duncan. “Why would you undertake a due diligence study two years into the process? Things don’t add up.”

With news that Canada’s contribution to the IAVI has been cancelled, Duncan is outraged. “This decision is unconscionable,” she says.

Liberal MP Keith Martin, a medical doctor who also deals with third-world issues, says the cancellation of the vaccine funds may be understandable given that recent vaccine results showed only 30 percent effectiveness in low-risk populations.

“The government has a responsibility to put the limited public resources into that which it can make the most profound impact, and there are other places to make the most profound impact to reduce the spread of HIV,” says Martin.

For example, Martin outlines the successes with the new seek-and-treat program combined with the Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy program, which is proven to reduce transmission.

“In the long run, you should continue to certainly invest in the vaccine, but the best bang for the buck right now is both seek-and-treat and in the HAART program,” says Martin, but he cautions that simply pulling all funding is not an option.

Meanwhile, Duncan continues to press about the CHVI back in Canada, and an inquiry at the Commons health committee is on the agenda.

“When the researchers say that we need this, and we want this — why are we cutting? It’s 60 million infected and we have a role to play — that’s the bottom line.”

Dale Smith is Xtra’s federal politics reporter. Read his blog Hill Queeries every weekday.