Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/4/2010 (3937 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
We may never know why the federal government cancelled plans to build an $88-million vaccine manufacturing facility. But this week we'll get a little closer to the truth of the matter.
This week, the House of Commons health committee will hear testimony from key characters behind what has become a real whodunnit.
In May 2009, a review committee gathered to pick a winner from four shortlisted consortiums that sought to host the vaccine plant, the central focus of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI).
The four consortiums, including one led by the Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID), spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their bids and marshalled support from some of the world's leading forces in vaccine production. In February 2010, to everyone's surprise, Ottawa cancelled the project.
To date, Ottawa has offered a decidedly incomplete explanation. The Public Health Agency of Canada, which oversaw the CHVI, said none of the consortiums qualified to host the vaccine facility. Then, PHAC released a report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner in the project, that said there was more than enough manufacturing capacity and the CHVI facility was redundant.
Almost no one associated with the consortiums or HIV research is buying either of those arguments. As a result, other theories and intrigue abound.
Early speculation suggested the Tories derailed the process to funnel the project, or the money, to Quebec. Another more likely scenario involves the unseen hand of the private pharmaceutical companies pressuring Ottawa to cancel the project, because some of the bids involved some of the world's largest generic drug makers.
That is not the only intrigue associated with these hearings. Opposition members of the committee had attempted to call as witnesses Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Manitoba's regional minister, and Jo Kennelly, a former Tory policy adviser now working behind the scenes in Manitoba. Both have been involved in efforts to discredit the International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID), the lead agency in what was believed to be the most promising consortium seeking to host the vaccine facility.
Toews in particular has been on a seek-and-destroy mission after ICID's CEO, Terry Duguid, declared his intention to run in Winnipeg South as a Liberal candidate.
Winnipeg Tory MP Joy Smith (Kildonan-St. Paul), chairwoman of the committee, exercised her powers to exclude Toews and Kennelly as witnesses. Smith has not, and likely will not, explain her decision.
Perhaps the most compelling testimony this week will come from Dr. Don Gerson, a top Canadian vaccine expert who devised the trial vaccine manufacturing facility in a proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gerson argued there was a critical shortage of facilities qualified to produce trial batches of HIV vaccine for human clinical trials.
Gerson's proposal, a copy of which has been obtained by the Free Press, argued that currently it is virtually impossible to find a facility that can handle the finicky, intricate work of producing vaccines for human trials.
You need a facility that can produce small batches, has the equipment and trained staff to document the production process, and meet all international governmental regulations while containing the specific technology needed to ensure consistency in each trial batch, he argued.
In an interview, Gerson said the Gates consultant did not sort vaccine manufacturing facilities by specific categories to see if they met the quality requirements for a trial vaccine plant. "It's really a quantity analysis, not quality analysis," he said.
However, Gerson's harshest words were saved for the assertion that none of the four bidders "met the bar." After having designed, built and managed some of the world's most advanced vaccine manufacturing facilities, Gerson is intimately familiar with the players in all the Canadian consortiums that sought to host this facility. And he is confident they could have done this job.
As for PHAC's claim nobody met the bar, Gerson said he was shocked to hear those words. "That's like having your mother go to school and stand in front of all the students and tell them that you're stupid. Once you say something like that, you can't take it back. It was a horrible thing to say."
Horrible might be the best way of describing the CHVI, a once promising program that has become a nightmarish purée of incompetence and political manipulation. And maybe this week, we'll get closer to that truth.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.