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AIDS vaccine facility won't be here: Ottawa

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OTTAWA -- The federal government is still seriously considering building an HIV vaccine manufacturing facility with the Gates Foundation but the Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) is officially not going to be part of that plan.

ICID chief executive officer Heather Medwick told the Free Press she had a debriefing with the Public Health Agency of Canada Thursday -- nearly two weeks after PHAC head Dr. David Butler-Jones informed her by phone ICID's bid was being rejected.

The debriefing was delivered by Steven Sternthal, director of the Office of HIV Vaccines within PHAC and Jane Billings, senior assistant deputy minister of PHAC. But Medwick said it included little specific information about why the bid had failed.

"They gave us some general comments," said Medwick. "They said we'd be getting further information in the next 10 days."

Medwick said she didn't want to release any details she was given so far until she gets the written information and can discuss it with ICID's board and the other partners in the proposal.

"We still don't agree with their assessment," she said.

Medwick said she was also told the facility itself could still be built even though it's believed all four finalists who bid for it were told last month they didn't win.

"They did say the whole project is being assessed, that they are working with the Gates Foundation and that they will have an announcement in the next few months," she said.

She said she was not given the impression ICID would be invited to participate when or if the government does decide to go forward with the project.

The other bidders were from the University of Western Ontario in London, Trent University in Peterborough and Laval University in Montreal. All but Laval have publicly confirmed they didn't win. That raised fears in some quarters that Ottawa is looking for a way to funnel the project to Quebec, which is home to more than a dozen big pharmaceutical companies.

The vaccine facility was to be the centrepiece of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative, a $139-million collaboration between Ottawa and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The manufacturing plant would be built for about $88 million and was to give researchers from around the world a non-profit, single location to manufacture potential HIV vaccines for clinical trials.

ICID's proposal had the backing of four Canadian universities, Winnipeg-based biopharmaceutical giant Cangene Corp., the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York City, and the Serum Institute, the largest generic vaccine manufacturing company in the world. Last summer, ICID was told informally its bid had been judged to be the winner by a group of peer reviewers.

But then former ICID CEO Terry Duguid decided to seek the nomination to run for the Liberal Party in Winnipeg South and things started to go sour. Several sources, including Duguid, say his candidacy for the Liberals was cited a number of times to ICID officials as being an impediment to ICID's bid on the vaccine plant.

Manitoba NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, her party's health critic, plans to get the House of Commons health committee to delve into this issue when Parliament resumes next month.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 6, 2010 A7

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