OTTAWA -- The head of Canada's public health agency was offended Tuesday at any suggestion he or his department did anything untoward in deciding not to build a pilot HIV vaccine-manufacturing facility in Canada.
Dr. David Butler-Jones bristled under repeated questioning at the House of Commons Health Committee about the HIV facility's demise. The plant was to have been the focal point of the $139-million Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative. It was cancelled last month.
Butler-Jones said the four finalists for the project failed to prove they could be self-sustaining once the project was built, which was an essential criterion for a winning bid. He said at the same time the Gates Foundation, Canada's partner on CHVI, produced a study which says there is now sufficient capacity available in existing facilities to produce enough research vaccines for use in clinical trials.
NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis pressed Butler-Jones about whether one of the four finalists had been recommended as the best bid. She asked why the government allowed four research consortiums to spend as much as $2 million on the bid process only to kill it later, sending all that money down the drain.
"There was a fair and open process with appropriate evaluation and you're suggesting somehow I would alter that or somehow the minister altered that," Butler-Jones answered. "We did not."
When Wasylycia-Leis asked him why officials at the Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases had been told their bid met "all the criteria and then some," Butler-Jones also tried to set the record straight.
"I did not state that," he said curtly. "I never heard that. I think that was an inappropriate statement by whoever made it because it was untrue."
Butler-Jones told the committee an independent, scientific review committee ranked the four finalists in order of the quality of their bids. But he said that wasn't a recommendation to award the bid to anyone, it was simply "advice." After that the department had to review it for other issues, including financial sustainability.
However, officials from ICID and the province of Manitoba have said they were told at least informally last summer that the ICID bid had been judged by an independent peer-review committee to be the best of the four finalists in every category.
Critics have raised the spectre that the political connections of ICID's former chief executive officer, Terry Duguid, who stepped down to run for the Liberals in Winnipeg South, and the concerns of big pharmaceutical companies played a role in killing the project.
"This was a highly questionable process," Wasylycia-Leis said.
She dismissed the Gates study, saying it was always known there was capacity to produce vaccines but there is a difference in having private-sector versus non-profit capacity.
Non-profit involvement allows easier and freer access to clinical trials for academic researchers, she said.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, however, said the government has been fully honest about what happened -- that none of the bidders met the criteria and the Gates study proved the capacity issue was no longer a problem.
"No one is hiding anything here," she said.
The $88 million earmarked for the facility will still be spent on CHVI but when and on what is still being negotiated with the Gates Foundation, she said.