Dropping HIV vaccine plant was a “value judgement”

By Nick Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

Canada made a “value judgement” in dropping its plans for a HIV vaccine plant, according to a representative of the public health agency who said the money could be better spent in other areas.

The decision to abandon plans has sparked controversy in Canada, with a number of theories being put forward to explain the decision. Speculation and high emotion continued yesterday in a Standing Committee on Health that was established to investigate the cancellation.

Rainer Engelhardt, assistant deputy minister at the Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Branch, maintained that the cancellation was a value judgement based on information that became available after the project began.

The Canadian government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation proposed to build the CA$139m (€102m) plant after identifying a shortage in pilot scale HIV vaccine production capacity.

Shortages were noted in 2005 but a March 2009 report by the Gates Foundation found there is sufficient capacity in North America and Europe to meet existing demands, according to Engelhardt, and consequently funds would be better spent on other HIV projects.

This assertion was disputed by other witnesses and questioners at the meeting. Donald Gerson, CEO of PnuVax, listed potentially suitable sites in Missouri, Maryland, Germany and Austria but stated that overall there is very little capacity.

At an earlier meeting David Butler-Jones, Canada’s first public health officer, claimed that none of the four proposals to build the facility met criteria on sustainability or financial capacity.

However, at yesterday’s meeting Gerson disputed this, stated that the plant could have been financially sustainable operating as a contract manufacturing organisation (CMO).

Most vociferous though was Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a member of the Canadian National Democratic Party, who said the issue was “a tangled web of deceit and obfuscation​”.

The four proposals

Engelhardt, along with Steven Sternthal, of the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative Secretariat, said that none of the four proposals met all the criteria which were detailed at the start of the process.

Unlike Butler-Jones, neither Engelhardt nor Sternthal would comment on specific aspects of the applications, stating instead that all the proposals had their strengths and weaknesses.

Gerson added that the government’s claims that none of the proposals met the criteria would raise doubts in some peoples’ minds about the competency of Canadian science. He added that he believes Canada has the capabilities to perform the HIV vaccine plant project.

Another standing committee meeting, this time featuring representatives of three of the four organisations that put forward plant proposals, takes place tomorrow.

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