Three years less a day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood beside Bill Gates and pledged $111-million toward the search for an AIDS vaccine, the federal government has officially cancelled the centrepiece project of that partnership, saying a manufacturing plant is no longer needed and Canadian researchers were not up to the job anyway.
The announcement, posted on the website of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative, follows four weeks of silence from the government on the future of the proposed non-profit venture meant to make small lots of vaccine for clinical trails. It states that a study commissioned by the Gates Foundation last year found that North America and Europe have sufficient vaccine manufacturing capacity to meet research needs, and that none of the applicants for the $88-million project "were found to be successful in meeting the pre-established criteria."
The announcement did not say what the criteria were.
Even though Ottawa is giving two reasons for its about-face, the unsuccessful bidders are still demanding answers.
"This just raises more questions," said Ted Hewitt, vice-president of research at the University of Western Ontario, one of four finalists.
It is quite an indictment of Canada's scientific capacity. It doesn't make sense to me. Ted Hewitt, vice-president of research, University of Western Ontario
If none of the bids passed muster, he wonders why the government allowed the competition to progress to a second phase last spring. And he remains skeptical that none of the bidders had the required expertise to operate the facility.
"It is quite an indictment of Canada's scientific capacity. It doesn't make sense to me," he said.
Terry Duguid, the former head of Winnipeg's International Centre for Infectious Diseases, said he heard from "four or five federal officials" last summer that his group was being recommended as the winning bid.
"This is absolutely a bogus excuse," he said, referring to the study. "I think there is a heavy dose of politics, both local and national," said Mr. Duguid, who is running as Liberal federal candidate in Winnipeg.
Finalists were told last month that their bids were rejected. The bidders also included Laval University and the International Consortium on Anti-Virals, based at Trent University. Several backers of the Winnipeg proposal have recalled that the city lost its bid to build CF18s in the 1980s to Quebec, surmising that regional politics were at play again.
Winnipeg MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis pointed out that the generic-drug industry was involved in the ICID proposal, and asked what role larger pharmaceutical companies played in the government's decision.
Applications were reviewed by an expert panel and considered by the federal government and the Gates Foundation, which earmarked $28-million for the project, a federal official said. The delay in announcing a decision was required to get agreement from all the parties, said Rainer Engelhardt, an assistant deputy minister with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
But Prof. Hewitt said he was told the government made the final call. "We were told the decision was made by a committee of bureaucrats - that's a quote - and approved by the minister," he said.
Bill Cameron, president of the Canadian Association for HIV Research, said he understands the researchers' frustration with the decision, and the long delay. Three years after Ottawa made its pledge, only a small fraction of the $111-million has been given out.
"What have we accomplished?" he asked. "We delayed so long and we haven't got anything."