What happened to the plan for an HIV-AIDS vaccine?

Inside a walk-in refrigerator full of lab samples, Dr. Michel Bergeron is showing off his baby: the Infectious Disease Research Centre at Laval University.
Bill Gates answers reporters questions in Ottawa February 2007 as Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks on following their announcement for funding to support the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Inside a walk-in refrigerator full of lab samples, Dr. Michel Bergeron is showing off his baby: the Infectious Disease Research Centre at Laval University.

The microbiologist, who founded the centre in 1974, has since become an international star in his field and attracted hundreds of scientists to work with him, and is best known for his work on HIV-AIDs. For example, he invented the invisible condom: a microbicide gel that can protect women from the disease.

Nearly four years ago, Bergeron heard about the federal government's plan to build an HIV-AIDS vaccine plant in Canada — the first of its kind in the world. It was announced with great fanfare at a news conference in February 2007.

In depth

Read more about the global AIDS epidemic.

Flanked by philanthropist Bill Gates, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described how Canada would become a world leader in the fight against HIV-AIDS.

"This collaboration between Canada's new government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is going to contribute to the global effort to develop safe, effective, affordable and globally accessible HIV vaccines," Harper told the audience.

Gates also kicked nearly $30 million into the project, while the total Government of Canada price tag for the program was $111 million.

Of that, about half, or $61 million, was to go towards building the vaccine plant in Canada. The rest, about $51 million, was supposed to go toward other aspects of vaccine development: including research, building the capacity for clinical trials, and smoothing out government policy and regulations around vaccines.

Wanted to be involved

Bergeron jumped on the opportunity.

"So what we were offering researchers from the world was a platform," he says. "Whereby the researcher would come here and we would look at their data and help them. We would support them. That was really the base ... That would have been in unique in the world."

Ng Ang, a six-year-old orphan who contracted the AIDS virus from his mother, stands up in his crib at a home for children in Bangkok in this file photo. The Canadian government has spearheaded the so-called Muskoka Initiative, aimed at reducing mother-to-child transmission of HIV-AIDS. ((Sukree Sukplang/Reuters))

One of the greatest challenges to AIDS researchers is the cost of buying expensive time from private for-profit vaccine manufacturing plants to produce enough vaccine for clinical trials.

Bergeron's organization spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and put in thousands of hours of work developing a bid to build a plant.

During that time he managed to draw pledges from several private backers and the provincial government. Bergeron was among four bidders invited to submit detailed proposals.

Then suddenly last year, nearly three years into the project, Bergeron got the news: the government was cancelling the project.

"We had built up something unique and then they cancelled the program. This has never happened to me in 30 years as an academic," the scientist said.

"This was well thought out. The flag of Canada was out there between 2007 and 2010 saying we're going to do it and Bill Gates was behind it. [Then] suddenly this change of action."

Bergeron and the other three bidders were told their proposals were inadequate. But Bergeron says the government decision was made without even a site visit to his facility, and he was never given the opportunity to improve his proposal.

The government also gave the bidders another reason for the cancellation: it pointed to a study showing a new vaccine plant was no longer needed — the worldwide network of manufacturing plants was sufficient in capacity to allow the creation of a new vaccine.

Bergeron doesn't buy any of that.

He says the world still needs a vaccine plant that's dedicated to helping researchers find a viable AIDS vaccine.

"Something must have happened," he says. "I don't know. Did Bill Gates decide not to invest anymore? Probably not, the money is still there. So that's not a reason. The government is not taking out its sixty million. The money's still there. So there must be other reason that the government might tell us one day."

The other bidders are equally skeptical. Terry Duguid was the founding president of the International Centre for Infectious Diseases in Winnipeg, which also submitted a full proposal.

"Frankly it was an insult to Canadian researchers and the private sector who is involved," he says. 

Duguid, a Liberal candidate for Winnipeg South, points to the private sector partners he attracted to support his bid: Cangene, Smith Carter architects, and the University of Manitoba Medical school, among others.

He argues the sudden cancellation has tarnished Canada's reputation with the private sector.

"One of the tragedies is our private sector sponsors who invested their time, their energy and their money, they're just not going to participate in these public private sector partnerships in the future because they just don't trust the government to follow through."

Reputation has suffered

Bergeron also believes Canada's international reputation has suffered. He says researchers in Africa, India and Europe were stunned by the decision.

"They still don't understand," he says. "And I still don't understand and they were appalled because they thought that was a great idea. And the contribution would have been great for the future. A long term vision for once, you know?"

A Chinese woman walks past a World AIDS Day poster n Beijing in 2004. Microbiologist Michel Bergeron says the world still needs a vaccine plant that's dedicated to helping researchers find a viable AIDS vaccine. ((Claro Cortes/Reuters))

This summer, the government announced a new plan for the $61 million that was supposed to be funding the plant: half of it would be moved to the Muskoka Initiative to help reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV-AIDS.

The remaining $31 million would be directed toward a new so-called research and development alliance. The government says the new alliance will support basic research, pave the way to clinical trials, and address the regulatory and policy problems that often prevent a vaccine from making it to trial and market.

Which sounds an awful lot like what the other half of the original funding (some $51 million) was supposed to do back in 2007. But the public Health Agency of Canada says only a fraction of that money had been spent by the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year — just $7.9 million. The rest of it, according to the agency, has been committed but not spent.

So, that's $7.9 million spent in total, by the end of the third year of a five-year plan to spend $111 million.

NDP health critic Megan Leslie finds that figure shocking.

"It's amazing to me that that's all that has been spent," she says. "We have a copy of the memorandum of understanding, it sounds great, it's this loose vague language about where we want to put the money. But show us the money. Where is the money going? Where is it being spent? Is it actually being spent?"

Leslie sits on the Commons health committee that tried to look into the matter earlier this year. She calls it a shell game with taxpayers' money, and she says the shell game predates the 2007 announcement. At that time she notes the government took $26 million from another program that funded community groups in Canada to work on HIV-AIDS education and prevention.

"That's where this money came from," she says. "And all of these community organizations said, 'Wait, we know that a vaccine would be a good thing, but that money should be separate and apart. You shouldn't be taking the money from ostensibly the most vulnerable people in Canada. You shouldn't be taking it from organizations that are actually putting a real dent in the spread of HIV in Canada and abroad.'"

In fact, HIV-AIDS experts warn the recent drop in public education is now fuelling a resurgence of the disease in Canada. A coalition of AIDS groups have since called on the federal government to return the unused $26 million to community AIDS programs.

Bergeron says he was astonished when the government summoned him to a meeting in September, to begin a new round of consultations on how to use the money.

He made an impassioned plea for the manufacturing plant. But he knew even as he gave it, it fell on deaf ears.

"I stood up and I just said, 'I still don't understand. We're extremely disappointed because I think Canada's losing in doing this.' I know they won't change their mind, but it was a unique opportunity."

Earlier this year, all three ministers responsible for the project — Health Minister Leona Aglukaak, Industry Minister Tony Clement, and Canadian International Development Agency Minister Bev Oda — declined to appear before the House of Commons health committee as it tried to investigate.

The committee issued a partial report, calling for the government to hand over granting authority in the future to an agency with granting experience, like the Canadian Institute for Health Research.

MP Megan Leslie is now seeking more answers about the timeline of the government's decision through a private member's question.

In the meantime, Canada and the world appear to be no closer to developing an HIV-AIDS vaccine. The question now is whether the "renewed" funding for the HIV-AIDS vaccine initiative will be put to better use.