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Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative report silent on allegations of political interference

Conservative ministers did not appear before committee to address allegations

The Commons health committee spent several sessions last spring studying the Conservative government’s decision to cancel plans to build a facility for the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI). The committee’s final report was tabled in the House last week, but it was notably silent on allegations of political interference raised earlier this year.

The report makes three recommendations: that wherever feasible, future competitions for similar projects be conducted by arm’s-length federal research agencies rather than Health Canada; that the government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation take into account certain priorities for the CHVI funds; and that the government conduct an independent needs assessment for future CHVI projects. The Bloc added its own recommendation that Quebec have its share of the funds separated and given to Quebec research agencies.

What was absent from the report, however, were any of the allegations of government interference in the cancellation of the project.

“It’s very difficult to put the allegations in unless you have the opportunity to raise the issue,” says Liberal MP Anita Neville, who attended the CHVI hearings despite not being a regular committee member. Neville’s was interested because Winnipeg’s International Centre for Infectious Diseases was confirmed to have met the criteria before the project was cancelled, and there were rumours that it was at the behest of Vic Toews, the senior political minister for Manitoba.

“The reports reflect the discussion that’s gone on in the committee,” Neville says. “Mr Toews wouldn’t come to the committee.”

Also summoned were Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Industry Minister Tony Clement. No Conservative minister appeared before the committee to answer the allegations of political interference.

A witness from ICID repeated those allegations to the committee, reporting conversations that had been relayed to her. Instead of mentioning the allegations, the final wording of the report places the blame on mismanagement by Health Canada and Public Health Agency officials.

Liberal committee vice-chair Kirsty Duncan was especially critical in the hearings about the lack of due diligence during the competition process — something which rated a single line in the report.

The report does point to the lack of communication between Health Canada and the bidders, as well as a lack of site visits, as is typical of these kinds of competitions.

“The key recommendation that comes from the committee was that it was handled badly, and if there was something going forward, someone else is going to have to oversee this,” Duncan says.

“I’m certainly left with a lot of questions, and we’re not done with this,” says NDP health critic Megan Leslie. Leslie took over the file from Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who resigned from federal politics to run for mayor of Winnipeg.

Leslie hopes that they will yet uncover new information on the allegations of political interference.

Neither the Conservative committee chair, Joy Smith, nor the parliamentary secretary, Colin Carrie, responded to requests for interviews.

Regarding the recommendations about the future of CHVI funding, Aglukkaq announced at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna in July that the government would be directing the remaining funds largely toward basic science in developing countries.

Duncan says that those commitments were broadly worded, and he is looking for more information on where the money is being spent.

>> Read the Commons health committee’s report on the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initative