OTTAWA — The Public Health Agency of Canada finally confirmed this morning it will not be building a planned HIV vaccine manufacturing facility.
Several weeks after the four finalists who bid for the project were told they hadn't won, a notice went up on the PHAC website today confirming the project is dead. Until now PHAC officials have only said the government was considering its option.
"After weighing all of the evidence, the Government of Canada and the Gates Foundation have decided not to proceed with the pilot-scale vaccine manufacturing facility," says the notice. "Other (Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative) programs are unaffected by this decision and will continue to move forward."
The pilot manufacturing facility was to have been the centrepiece of the vaccine initiative, a $139-million partnership between Ottawa and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The facility was to be built for $88 million, and was intended to provide manufacturing capacity for HIV vaccines from researchers around the globe to be used in clinical trials.
In the press release today the government says the Gates Foundation has since analyzed current vaccine manufacturing capacity in Canada and concluded there is enough available that a manufacturing facility isn't necessary.
The entire process surrounding the facility has been mired in controversy, allegations of partisan decision making and influence from brand-name pharmaceutical companies.
Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases was the leader of one of the four finalists invited to apply for the project in November 2008. They, along with bids from the University of Western Ontario, Trent University and Laval University, submitted proposals in the spring of 2009 and a decision was to have been made last fall.
Last summer ICID was told informally from several different sources it had the best bid but the partisan affiliations of its then-CEO were raised as a conflict that could prevent the government from funding the project.
Terry Duguid, who ran for the federal Liberals in 2004 and 2006, was the CEO when ICID put in its bid. He resigned as CEO in August when he decided to try to run for the Liberals again, in Winnipeg South.
However, he continued on with a contract at ICID for biosafety projects.
In mid-January, Manitoba regional minister Vic Toews' office confirmed with ICID that Duguid was still working there on contract and then sent an email accusing Duguid of being misleading about his ties with ICID "so that he could continue to receive a paycheque from this government financed agency while involving himself as a political candidate for the federal Liberals."
Not long after that email was sent, a notice was posted on the PHAC website saying the vaccine facility was not going ahead after all.
The notice was removed quickly and PHAC said it was posted in error.
But the same week ICID and the other three bidders were told they hadn't been successful. ICID is still trying to get a full explanation of why it hadn't qualified, especially after receiving so much informal positive feedback last summer.
Manitoba Liberal MP Anita Neville said the government should have done all the due diligence before putting out a call for proposals.
"Why did they put all these organizations through the hoops," she said.
She wondered if the government would refund the $750,000 ICID spent putting its bid together.