AIDSVAX: Potential Conflict-of-Interest Sparks CDC Inquiry
Dr. William Heyward, former chief of the CDC's HIV vaccine unit, last year "helped funnel millions of dollars for research being done for a company where he accepted a high-level job just months later," the Chicago Tribune reports. CDC officials admitted Wednesday that Heyward was "directly involved" in allocating $8 million for U.S. trials of California-based VaxGen's AIDSVAX, the only HIV vaccine currently in advanced testing stages. The revelation comes amidst a "growing controversy" over the CDC's handling of funds, and according to Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), raises questions about the allocation's legitimacy. "If Dr. Heyward was directly involved in the decision to grant VaxGen the $8 million ... and then immediately he becomes an employee, it clearly raises the question as to whether the employment was a part of the decision for making the grant," Porter said, adding that it is "too soon" to know if the case will lead to an official investigation by Congress (Manier, 2/17). The CDC grants were not made to VaxGen but to six U.S. research sites conducting trials of the vaccine, according to CDC spokesperson Kay Golan. She added that the CDC asked for an inspector general's investigation yesterday "to clarify any perception of ethical impropriety on the part of Dr. Heyward or the centers," the New York Times reports (Altman, 2/18). Heyward told the Associated Press that he was not solely responsible for the decision regarding the grant. Several other government officials had to approve it as well, he said, adding, "I made no decisions myself that dictated whether something would be done or not. My advice was that CDC should be involved in this trial. But I don't care what vaccine it was, I would have said the same thing" (Pilcher, AP/Austin American-Statesman, 2/18). Heyward also said that he was "one of about 20 people involved in the recommendation" (New York Times, 2/18). CDC and VaxGen officials also noted that Heyward had consulted beforehand with CDC legal counsel, which cleared his involvement. Additionally, VaxGen President Dr. Don Francis claimed that although he and Heyward had discussed the possibility of employment for several years, they suspended their talks "months before the October decision, to avoid a conflict of interest." He said, "Bill and I are obviously not naive about this. Once there came a possibility that (the CDC) would fund the study, we stopped all negotiations." According to CDC spokesperson Kathryn Bina, the agency is nonetheless "in the process of looking at how post-employment restrictions would apply" to the VaxGen situation. John Moore of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center said the discovery "deepened his misgivings about the vaccine," which some scientists believe is "no good." Moore noted, "I think that many people in the HIV vaccine field will be pretty concerned about how it looks." But Francis countered that funding research into HIV vaccines "is what government should be doing." VaxGen has enrolled 5,000 U.S. volunteers in AIDSVAX trials; 2,500 people in Thailand are taking part in another study in advanced testing (Chicago Tribune, 2/17).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.