The Commons health committee met this morning for the first of two days of study on the cancellation of the planned vaccine production facility as part of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI). When the CHVI was created in 2007 as a joint venture with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the government reallocated funds from ground-level HIV/AIDS organisations in order to fund the vaccine initiative. The production facility component, which would have used $88 million of the total $111 million fund, was declared to be cancelled in February of this year after a study by the Gates Foundation found sufficient capacity elsewhere.
The committee heard from the two officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada, alongside Dr. Bill Cameron, the president of the Canadian Association of HIV Research, Dr. Donald Gerson, the president and CEO of PnuVax, and Dr. Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, who joined by videoconference from Florida.
According to the PHAC officials, one of whom was Dr. Rainer Engelhardt, the Assistant Deputy Minister for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control, the purpose of the facility was to address a gap in pilot-scale vaccine manufacturing capacity identified in a 2005 study. By the time of the Gates foundation study in 2009, they found that capacity existed elsewhere, so the facility was no longer needed, which was just as well because none of the four finalists met the established criteria.
Dr. Cameron focused on the fact that there is no feasible commercial model to bring vaccines to trial – it needs public funds. He also stressed that industry cannot be relied upon for this kind of research – it had to come from academic labs that had the diversity, creative freedom and risk-taking ability. Dr. Gerson spoke about the difficult requirements of a “proven clean” facility necessary for vaccine trials, and that those facilities are hard to create and find. He also said that a number of HIV vaccine trials have failed because of inadequate facilities. Gerson objected to the Gates Foundation study because of its page-one disclaimer that it didn’t focus on quality of facility – only capacity, and suggested that whoever completed it was either unaware, or was looking to kill the Canadian process for other reasons. Dr. Sekaly spoke of his involvement in the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, and that the loss of this facility was a missed opportunity, as it would have been used for other vaccine trials as well.
From here, the MPs began their questions. The Liberals, primarily under Kirsty Duncan, had a specific series of questions on the process to cancel the facility, and called out contradictions from previous testimony from Dr. Butler Jones, the Chief Public Health Officer, regarding timelines and rankings of the applicants. Anita Neville asked why it was that the Winnipeg bid was informally told they had won the bid, only for it to be cancelled. And Joyce Murray asked for a copy of the cost-benefit analysis they used to determine that the facility wouldn’t generate enough value for the money being invested in it, only to be told that such an analysis didn’t exist.
The Bloc asked partly why Doctor Sekaly left Montreal to continue his research on HIV vaccines in Florida, which he was vague on. They also asked the PHAC officials what the freed up money would be used for, and were told that it hadn’t been decided.
The Conservatives mostly gave the PHAC officials time to run out the clock by reciting their talking points, but it was the NDP’s Judy Wasylycia-Leis who gave the strongest line of questioning. Pointing out the various contradictions in the accumulated testimony, she called out the PHAC officials for their delivery of talking points, and asked about what other suitable facilities existed in the world. Gerson answered that there were very few – one in Germany, one in Vienna, one in Southern California, and possible one other in St. Louis – though it was doubtful – and another in Rockville, Maryland, though it was primarily focused on TB. After that, there were very few others. In her second round, Wasylycia-Leis asked the three researchers why they thought the project had been cancelled, but all three indicated that the decision didn’t make any sense, other than a possible unspoken policy change in government.