The federal government’s decision to cancel an $88-million Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) pilot-scale production facility in February may have been because of political interference, according to both the Liberals and NDP.
At hearings before the Commons health committee on Tuesday and Thursday last week, allegations were made of political interference by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who represents the Manitoba riding of Provencher.
The committee also heard from scientists familiar with the CHVI proposal process, which saw four consortiums put forward bids for the production facility and research centre. Opposition MPs and scientists say the reason for killing the project doesn’t make sense.
Representatives of the Winnipeg International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) were told informally last year that they were the successful bid.
“There are rumours, and I underline rumours, that there was interference, political interference from the senior minister in Manitoba, Minister Toews,” says Liberal MP Anita Neville.
The previous CEO of ICID resigned his position to run as a Liberal candidate, fuelling rumours that Toews would rather kill the project than see its supposed Liberal associations go forward.
“That’s, in my mind, a mean-spiritedness that has ramifications, not only for the individuals involved, certainly for the province of Manitoba, and certainly for the HIV-vulnerable community,” Neville says.
Both Neville and NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, also from Winnipeg, state that they have heard allegations that Toews instead has plans for ICID to work on a biosafety Level 5 lab. Manitoba currently hosts a Level 4 lab.
The committee also heard testimony that the government has put forward people with Conservative connections to serve on the ICID board, even though ICID is an independent organization that only receives project-based funding from the government. The committee heard that one of ICID’s board members was contacted by a member of the minister’s staff and told that the project was not going forward.
“The suggestion being made is that the political meddling is about getting rid of this Liberal-controlled piece, which is the ICID and the CHVI proposal, and shifting the attention to a Level 5 lab, with Conservative oversight,” Wasylycia-Leis says. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because I don’t see the Level-5 lab anywhere on the agenda. This is a huge investment, and I don’t see that the government has that kind of resources right now or are even talking about it. But I do think that there are some politics involved.”
In recent months, there have been numerous questions raised about other government-appointed boards, such as the Toronto Port Authority and Rights and Democracy.
Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) officials told the committee on Tuesday that the project was cancelled because none of the four bidders met the scientific, technical and sustainability criteria outlined in the request for proposal. PHAC officials also pointed to a 2009 study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which said that capacity had been found elsewhere and that a CHVI facility would no longer be necessary.
Both opposition critics and scientists before the committee argued that the Gates study only focused on quantity of capacity and not the quality, something important in the manufacturing of vaccine pilot-lots for clinical trials. The study examined value-for-money and financial sustainability, and PHAC officials told the committee that none of the bidders met those criteria, despite bidder protests to the contrary.
When asked to table the cost-benefit analysis that led to the value-for-money decision that the bids were rejected on, the PHAC officials said that such an analysis did not exist. PHAC officials also refused to release the criteria by which each bidder failed.
Wasylycia-Leis points out several other contradictions. When the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr David Butler-Jones, appeared before committee previously, he stated there was a ranking system for the bids, though PHAC officials at Tuesday’s hearing denied such rankings existed. ICID had been informed in the fall of 2009 that they were the recommended bidder, but in December 2009, a page on the PHAC website stated that the project had been cancelled, even though an official announcement wasn’t made until February. In his previous testimony, Butler-Jones also did not appear to understand that the CHVI was supposed to have been a not-for-profit operation.
The question of timing has also been raised. The Gates study commenced in March 2009, at the same time that the four bids were delivered. The Gates study released its assessment in July, while the bids were being assessed, and a final decision was not announced until the following January.
“Why you would undertake a due diligence study two years into the process?” asks Liberal health critic Kirsty Duncan.
Dr Donald Gerson evaluated the initial letters of intent and helped choose the four final bidders. But his expertise was ignored in favour of the Gates report, notes Duncan.
Gerson, the president and CEO of PnuVax Incorporated, also attacked the claim that none of the bidders put forward financially sustainable bids. “The conclusion that this is not profitable either comes from someone who doesn’t know how to do it, or from someone who does not want it done because it’s competition.”
Gerson fails to see the logic of the cancellation, considering the broader implications that such a facility would have for Canada.
“This would have invested in Canada, created economic opportunities [and] created jobs for people,” he says.
Gerson also points to the fact that given the economic move toward biotech, this decision ensures that Canada is being left behind.
“We’re still not the leader that we could be given our university and intellectual base that we have, which is extremely strong,” Gerson says. “You’ve got to convert that into jobs and into products you can sell.”
Both the CHVI facility and Canada’s contribution to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) were cancelled in close proximity, notes Gerson.
The committee voted to allow for a third day of hearings into the matter, and to call ministers Vic Toews, Tony Clement and Leona Aglukkaq before the committee to address the issues of political interference. Toews has declined the invitation, according to the Winnipeg Free Press.
“I don’t have the smoking gun — I don’t have the document that says ‘You shall kill this, no matter what,'” Wasylycia-Leis says. “I don’t have the smoking gun that says where this government would have gone to Gates and said ‘Look, I need your help with killing this, would you come up with a study.’ We know that that happened — it’s as plain as day, but we don’t have the absolute evidence.
“What we have so far are a whole series of contradictions in testimony that shows that’s the case, but we don’t have the definitive piece of evidence, and I will keep searching for that.”