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CHVI study – Day Two

The Commons health committee continued their look into the cancellation of the planned vaccine production facility as part of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI). Whereas Tuesday’s hearing focused on the government officials, today’s hearing heard from the four bidders and a representative from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The presentations focused on the need for vaccine research, and the links between that research and other kinds of research such as pre-vaccine studies on why the immune systems react to the HIV virus in certain ways. There were also sentiments aired about how the selection process for this facility was different than other processes that these organisations have applied for. In particular, many found the evaluation process subjective, and it was difficult to determine the roles of internal and external reviewers, and the lack of any site visits were also deemed unusual.

There were a couple of distinct lines of questioning done by the committee. The Liberals focused largely on the allegations swirling around Manitoba regarding political interference by the Conservative government – and Minister Vic Toews in particular – about why the bid by the International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) was shot down after they had been informed that they were the recommended applicant.

The government members tried largely to downplay the accusations of political interference, and get the witnesses – the Gates Foundation in particular – to talk about how great it was that Canada was putting all this money into HIV research, even though they occasionally got derailed when witnesses pointed out that theoretical capacity and commercial capacity in existing facilities were two very different concepts.

The Bloc focused on where the $88 million designated for the facility would be spent instead, and were told that the Gates Foundation were still evaluating options, but wanted to maintain a priority on fast-tracking new vaccine production. Jeremy Carver, president of the International Consortium on Anti-Virals, suggested that the Gates Foundation could use the money to pre-purchase capacity in existing vaccine production centres, rather than have these pilot-scale projects wait for, in some cases, years before the commercial facilities had available capacity.

Once again, the NDP’s Judy Wasylycia-Leis hammered the point that the initial call for bids was that the proposed facility was more than just for pilot-scale vaccine manufacturing capacity, but it was supposed to be geared towards a greater scientific and research facility that would combine the broader aspects of vaccine research and production under one roof. She also requested the complete documents from ICID regarding the discussions around potential political interference, and from the Gates Foundation just what their evaluation was of the four bidders, since they haven’t been able to get that information from the government.

At the end of the hearing, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett moved that a third hearing be held in order to further “clear the air” around political interference, and that it would hear from the ministers involved. Despite Conservative objections that the allegations were third-hand and from a Liberal candidate in Manitoba, they should be dismissed. Nevertheless, they were overruled, and another hearing will be held on either the 22nd or 29th, depending on when the committee clerk can accommodate the schedule.
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