4 min

Critics track Canadian fallout from Vienna AIDS conference

Vaccine money reallocated; Canada refuses to sign harm reduction statement

Nearly six months after the federal government announced it would not be going ahead with a planned HIV vaccine-manufacturing facility as part of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI), it revealed where the $139 million would be going.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq made the announcement from the World AIDS Conference in Vienna.

Of the $139 million, the redistribution would see $102 million go toward improving basic science in developing countries, with an eye on developing clinical vaccine trials there while working to improve regulatory capacity in Canada and those developing countries. So far, $51 million has been spent.

As well, $30 million would go to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to be used to support mother-to-child transmission prevention, and another $7 million would be put toward implementing the CHVI goals and the coordinated approach.

“It’s not much of an announcement,” says the NDP’s health critic, Megan Leslie. “There was a vaccine manufacturing-facility planned in 2007; they made an announcement. Now we’re in 2010, it’s a new announcement for the same money. Three years have passed, and we don’t have anything.”

While Leslie believes an alliance for researchers sounds great, she is also aware that in 2007, $10.2 million was taken from Canadian HIV initiatives and redirected toward the CHVI funds, despite a promise to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that the Canadian commitment would be all new money.

“I know communities have been saying, At the very least can you give this money back to the Federal Initiative because it’s working,” Leslie says. “We know how to prevent AIDS. We can prevent AIDS by education, by talking about prevention methods.”

“The first thing we want, separate from the vaccine facility money, is that $10.2 million put back in to fighting AIDS in Canada,” says Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal health critic.

Bennett also criticizes the government’s move not to sign the Vienna Convention because it called for harm reduction policies regarding drug use.

“They need to understand that all the scientists in the world want harm reduction as the essential fourth pillar of fighting AIDS,” Bennett says. “It’s become very clear that just prevention, treatment and enforcement is not enough when we’re now back up to 1982 levels in terms of the [new infections] in Canada.”

With the $102 million share going toward basic research and not a larger project, there has been concern among the stakeholder community of the longer-term effect.

During the Commons health committee hearings on the CHVI facility cancellation in April, Dr Donald Gerson, the president and CEO of PnuVax Incorporated, told Xtra, “The critical difference for Canada is you can dissipate $80 million easily. You can spend it on all kinds of little projects, and it essentially is an expense and not an investment. It may help the AIDS vaccine get created, but it doesn’t also invest in Canada.”

Gerson points out that the $88 million CVHI facility would have had economic benefits for the country beyond just the development on an HIV vaccine. “I look at it from both the perspective of the disease problem, and $88 million is now so far not being invested in Canada.”

Bennett criticizes that the decision to disperse the funds to a variety of projects was done without consulting either parliamentarians or the stakeholder community.

“A lot of people did want it to go to one project,” Bennett says. “People are very worried that the assessment of not needing a facility presumed a lot of generosity on the part of the people who own facilities, that they would shut down their flu vaccine production lines in order to make a small quality of vaccine candidate. We haven’t necessarily heard that from anyone other than the officials.”

“There was a commitment previously by government officials that there would be consultation with community in determining what’s to be done with the money now no longer going to the CHVI,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “There was no consultation before this announcement.”

“It’s truly disheartening that the government of Canada would come to AIDS 2010 to announce what is a reallocation of funds, while what we need is for them to announce a major contribution to the Global Fund, which is key to successfully responding to the global epidemic,” Elliott says. “Something in the order of $1 billion over the next three years – five percent of the $20 billion needed – which is about $10 per Canadian per year.”

There are also concerns about the decision to allocate $30 million to CIDA for mother-to-child transmission prevention.

“Mother-to-child transmission [prevention] is usually done with ARVs [antiretroviral drugs], and it’s about drugs and not vaccine,” Bennett says.

“The stakeholders that I’ve talked to are worried that this could mean double-counting, meaning that those count as part of the $1.1 billion they’re giving to maternal and child health. Let’s see the numbers, because if this is just shifting money that was for AIDS and they’re now calling it part of their contribution for maternal and child health, then both areas are being short-changed.”

“It’s not surprising that the Conservative government is emphasizing mother-to-child transmission,” says Stephen Brown, a professor at the University of Ottawa who studies CIDA. “Maternal and child health was the centre point of the G8 summit, and also it has a warm, fuzzy appeal – protecting innocent children, protecting the sanctity of motherhood and the mother-child relationship.

“That kind of transmission is the least political, so they’re not talking about same-sex transmission, they’re not talking about prostitutes. They can target mother-to-child transmission and still play to the family values base.”

“You certainly see that this would be a nice motherhood-and-apple-pie way of dealing with AIDS so as to not alienate their base,” says the NDP’s Leslie. “There is certainly very good PR value in tapping into the motherhood-and-apple-pie issues.”