"You can't test a vaccine without a production facility," said Dr. Bill Cameron, president of the Canadian Association of HIV Research.
"I'm disappointed," he said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed Friday it and the Gates Foundation are not proceeding with an $88-million HIV facility to produce experimental vaccines for clinical trials. The facility was to have been the signature project of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative, a joint venture between Canada and the Gates Foundation announced three years ago.
Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases was among the four finalists and was told informally last summer it had won. However, all four finalists were told three weeks ago they hadn't met the criteria.
PHAC confirmed on Friday the facility would not be built, citing a July 2009 analysis by the Gates Foundation showing there are already enough manufacturers for test vaccines.
That analysis notes there are more suppliers available now than there were five years ago and fewer clinical trials are expected in coming years because scientists have added stricter criteria for advancing to the trial stage. It acknowledged more research is needed to ensure the quality of the suppliers but also said only two out of 30 research experts consulted had issues with capacity for vaccine production available now or in the future.
Cameron said it's true the HIV vaccine research field has changed in recent months after two promising vaccines had "ho hum" results in clinical trials. However, he said introducing a new way for researchers to get their vaccines produced may have been a creative spark to the field. "Whatever we're doing is not working and I see nothing wrong with taking another approach," he said.
The vast majority of clinical trials of HIV vaccines currently take place with private-sector funding and manufacturing because there is very little manufacturing capacity available in non-profit companies.
Cameron said private-sector trials are constrained by intellectual property and market considerations, which can limit research.
"I don't think that's the best way to find another creative research project," he said. "This is why we need a public facility. Personally, I'd like to see a vaccine facility constructed to meet the needs of academic researchers."
The Gates Foundation has remained silent. A spokesperson directed media to the Canadian government for comment.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the money for the project is still on the table. "We are working with the Gates Foundation on where to best invest this money to achieve a safe, effective and affordable HIV vaccine," Josee Bellemare said in an email.
Terry Duguid, the former chief executive officer of ICID who is running for the federal Liberals in Winnipeg South, said the government's excuses are a "massive coverup."
The Liberals want an independent investigation.