ETHICS: Conflict of Interest in CDC AIDSVAX Grant?
A CDC official who helped direct $8 million in government funding toward research for VaxGen's experimental HIV vaccine AIDSVAX has come under investigation by the HHS inspector general for a possible conflict of interest. Just months after taking part in the grant decision, Dr. William Heyward, former head of the CDC's AIDS vaccine unit, accepted a high-level position with VaxGen, the Chicago Tribune reports. A spokesperson for the inspector general's office yesterday said they were looking into "whether or not there is a conflict of interest as a result of new private sector employment and (Heyward's) previous duties as an employee of the CDC." Heyward, who now serves as VaxGen's vice president of international clinical studies, denied any wrongdoing and said he expects to be cleared by the federal review.
VaxGen President Don Francis has maintained that while he and Heyward had "off and on, informal" employment discussions for two years, they halted their discussions months before the grant decision was made in order to avoid any ethical conflicts. Still, Mildred Cho, senior research scholar at the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics, and others say Heyward should have recused himself from any discussions related to the grant. "From an ethical and common sense point of view, it's obvious that you shouldn't engage in negotiations with a company you know you're thinking of working for," she said. Vaxgen currently is conducting trials of its controversial vaccine at 61 sites across the county, six of which will benefit from the CDC grant. Some AIDS researchers have cast doubt on the vaccine, saying that "there is little hope that [it] will protect at-risk populations" (Manier, 2/25).