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Politics is once again the spoiler

HIV-vaccine debacle old-school manipulation

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/2/2010 (2744 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At this point, it's fair to ask the federal government what it's hiding.

It has been just over two weeks since we learned the federal government's much-celebrated Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) has stalled.

Bill Gates with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at Feb. 20, 2007 HIV Vaccine Initiative announcement.


Bill Gates with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at Feb. 20, 2007 HIV Vaccine Initiative announcement.

Ottawa, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, promised in 2007 to build an $88-million, not-for-profit vaccine manufacturing facility. It was to be the centrepiece of the CHVI, this country's principal contribution to the battle against HIV and AIDS.

Bids were submitted. An international blue-ribbon committee of experts was convened to examine those bids. That committee concluded its work last spring, but no result was ever announced. Now, remarkably, the project appears to be dead.

In the wake of the collapse of the CHVI, one might have expected the federal government to provide some sort of public explanation about why and how such an important initiative failed. This was a high-profile government initiative that was supposed to create a facility many believe would have allowed promising HIV vaccines to reach clinical trial faster.

But to date, there have been nothing but bits and pieces of information, all of which raise more questions than they answer, and none of which add up to a complete picture of what happened.

From sources, we know Ottawa has contacted each of the four Canadian bids short-listed to host the manufacturing facility to inform them nobody qualified. There have been ambiguous statements about "changing needs" and "reallocation of resources."

The Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases -- which led a consortium short-listed to host the facility -- was told by officials from Health Canada there were problems that prevented the Winnipeg bid from being selected. However, what was more revealing was what the federal officials would not say.

They would not, for example, entertain any questions about the results of an elaborate peer-review process Ottawa set up to make an objective recommendation on who would host the facility. The membership of the evaluation committee remains a bit of a mystery, although it was known to involve experts in HIV research and vaccine production from all over the world.

It is also known that the evaluation committee met for three days last May to make its final recommendations. And that following that meeting, several sources told ICID it had been chosen to host the facility.

ICID has repeatedly asked for the results of the peer-review process. Both publicly and privately, Ottawa has refused to reveal what the committee recommended. That is clear evidence something is horribly wrong here.

This was a process established to ensure not only that the best bidder won, but that the final decision would be made on merit and not politics. Students of political history understand there are numerous examples of seemingly independent bidding processes that have been derailed by politics. The CF-18 scandal -- which ironically made Winnipeg a centre of excellence in medical microbiology when the National Microbiology Laboratory was built here as a consolation prize for losing an aircraft maintenance contract in 1986 -- is never far from the minds of many in this province.

But the CF-18 scandal was born of an era where awarding government contracts was intentionally open to manipulation. The awarding of military contracts was, in those days, a political plumb to be handed out by the ruling party. Although few would excuse the politics that diverted the CF-18 contract to a Quebec company, it was a sign of the times.

The maddening aspect of the CHVI story is it appears politics is once again to blame, despite the fact Ottawa set up a process that was supposed to be immune to politics. Which particular kind of politics, it is not clear.

It could be a local effort to punish a Liberal associated with the ICID bid, an effort to direct the funding to a province of strategic electoral importance, or a full-court press by Big Pharma to government from investing in a non-profit vaccine facility.

If this initiative was derailed by the absence of a qualified bid, the peer-review process could have been used to justify a reconfiguration of the CHVI. It also could have provided the bidders with constructive criticism to ensure one of them earned the right to host this critically important facility.

Instead, we have a major public-policy initiative derailed, and a government that feels no obligation to explain how or why it happened.

We should not fear failure. Fear should be saved for a government that would manipulate a process established to resist manipulation.

Read more by Dan Lett.


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