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City MP demands: Why was vaccine facility scrapped?

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OTTAWA -- Manitoba NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis is demanding that federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq respond to accusations that politics interfered with a bid process to build an $88-million HIV vaccine pilot manufacturing facility in Canada."I am writing today to ask for an immediate update on this initiative and answers to several disturbing questions about political interference and behind-the-scenes tampering with what should have been an objective, transparent decision-making process," Wasylycia-Leis wrote to Aglukkaq Wednesday.

Aglukkaq's spokesman said the minister hasn't yet officially received the letter and therefore could not provide a comment.

The vaccine facility was the centrepiece of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative, a joint venture of the federal government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The idea was to have a not-for-profit corporation build and operate a pilot-scale facility to produce promising vaccines, developed by researchers around the world, for clinical trials.

Four finalists, including one from Winnipeg, were picked to submit full proposals in 2008. Independent peer reviewers looked at the bids last spring, and an announcement of the winner was expected in fall.

The Winnipeg-based bid was led by the International Centre for Infectious Diseases, and included four Canadian universities, the largest generic vaccine manufacturer in the world and Canadian biopharmaceutical giant Cangene. Last summer, federal sources informed the Manitoba government and ICID informally that they had won, but no announcement was ever made.

In late January, a notice appeared briefly on a government website stating Ottawa and the Gates Foundation had decided not to proceed with the facility. The four candidates, including ICID, were notified Jan. 29 their bids had fallen short.

Explanations were limited, and the Public Health Agency of Canada and Aglukkaq have been mum about what happened and whether a facility is still an option.

"There is no explanation for it," Wasylycia-Leis said. "I've never heard of such a process before when an open tender process is suddenly stopped."

She included six specific questions in her letter, including what developments occurred after the completion of the peer-review process, why the Winnipeg-based bid fell short and whether the pharmaceutical industry expressed concern about the government planning to award a contract that involved generic drug companies.

There have also been questions raised about whether the Conservatives didn't want to award a bid started by ICID's former CEO, Terry Duguid, who left the centre last summer to run for the federal Liberals in Winnipeg South.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2010 A6

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