Technology & Science

$88M for HIV vaccine lab to go to research instead

Almost $90 million once earmarked for an HIV vaccine-production facility in Canada will instead be spent on vaccine research and preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says.

Funding to come from federal government, Gates foundation

Almost $90 million once earmarked for an HIV vaccine-production facility in Canada will instead be spent on vaccine research and preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has announced.

A partnership formed in 2005 between the federal government and the Gates Foundation had set aside $88 million for a lab to produce pilot HIV vaccines, but the program was cancelled in February amid much criticism. 

Aglukkaq, in Vienna for the International AIDS Conference, said Tuesday the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) has been renewed with the creation of the CHVI Research and Development Alliance.

That alliance will direct the $88 million — $60 million from Canada plus $28 million from the Gates Foundation — to collaborative research aimed at developing candidate HIV vaccines. Of the total, $30 million will go to preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus in low- and middle-income countries.

"The government of Canada and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are committed more than ever to accelerating the development of a safe, effective, affordable and globally accessible HIV vaccine," Aglukkaq said in a statement.

"The creation of the CHVI Research and Development Alliance recognizes the potential for Canadian researchers to lead the charge in HIV vaccine research, and our strategic investments will help pave the way to a new vaccine."

During a news conference on Tuesday, Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale called on Aglukkaq to reverse the decision on the vaccine-production facility and criticized the Conservative government's "inaction" on HIV.

Goodale said the $60 million announced by Aglukkaq is not new money but will come out of a previous $111-million the government committed to HIV that remains unspent.

"All of which leads us to ask: where is the remaining $51 million and where are all the other required elements to have a decent Canadian plan?" Goodale told reporters in Ottawa.

'Important relationship'

But Dr. Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York, said he is pleased with the government's announcement.

"I think it's an important relationship," Bernstein said from Vienna. "I think both parties could have agreed to walk away from the first iteration of this partnership.

"I think it's recognizing the importance of Canadians and Canadian science to be part of the work and to contribute in a collaborate way to what's going on internationally."

Rainer Engelhardt, assistant deputy minister of infectious diseases at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said from Vienna that it was decided that a pilot vaccine lab was "not good value for money" and a different tack should be taken.

"What was really missing was a truly co-ordinated approach that would bring together the researchers, the product developers, the clinical trial specialists … to be able to bring a discovery of an HIV vaccine into use," he said.

"So, that's the new thing, that commitment to work together truly for a common goal."

Engelhardt said the $30 million for preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission is connected to the overriding aim of hastening the development of a safe, effective vaccine.

"It fits in with the vaccine development scenario because it develops a capacity and receptivity in those countries where we have actually been intending to carry out clinical trials and, at the end point, apply the HIV vaccine," he said.

"So, in a way, it readies a country, a population, to acceptance of medical treatment."

The money for research will be spent predominantly in Canada, but the affiliation with the Gates Foundation opens up more opportunity for international collaboration, Engelhardt said.

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