So what happened to the AIDs vaccine?

HIVYou might remember all the hullabaloo last month about the HIV vaccine developed by the US military and tested on 16,000 people in Thailand.  Hailed as an “HIV breakthrough” and a “historic milestone“, the initial press release of the study certainly had the media convinced that a prevention for AIDs was just around the corner.

Now the research has been presented in full at the AIDS Vaccine 2009 Conference in Paris and in the New England Journal of Medicine, and reactions are far more circumspect.

Granted, the vaccine in question is the first ever to provide any kind of protection against HIV, but it only prevented HIV-1 infection in 31.2% of participants. 74 of the 8198 volunteer who received the placebo vaccine became infected with HIV-1, but 51 of the 8197 people who were given the vaccine still managed to get infected – a difference of only 23 people.

I’m not really sure what happened with this story.  Did it get press released before publication and before anyone had a good look at all the data?  To be fair the initial news stories were pretty good in their reporting of the research, but why is the story doing the rounds again?

New Scientist is on the ball with this.  In September they published an article “What to make of the HIV vaccine ‘triumph’“, in which they point out that “the victory was won by the slenderest of numerical margins.”

In addition, New Scientist provides some sort of answer to my previous question.  Says the article: “The result was disclosed at the earliest available opportunity at the request of the Thai collaborators, says Merlin Robb, deputy director for clinical research at the MHRP.  “The Thai Ministry of Public Health was very anxious to let the volunteers in Thailand know the result as soon as possible, instead of waiting for a scientific conference,” says Robb. “This reflects our commitment to the volunteers and transparency in all aspects of this trial,” he said.”

So what’s with this jumping of the gun and presenting research before it’s been published in a peer review journal?  But researchers live in a “publish or perish” environment and are in constant fear of being “pipped to the post”.

The BMJ says “We do not want material that is published in the BMJ appearing beforehand, in detail, in the mass media” and “The BMJ does not want to publish material that has already appeared in full elsewhere“. And the New England Journal of Medicine cites their “Ingelfinger rule“, which “requires that author-researchers not release the details of their findings to the mass media before their work undergoes peer review and is published.”

I don’t think this research would have subsequently been published in the NEJM if the authors had in fact broken the embargo, so there must have ben some intense behind the scenes bargaining to get the paper released early – but only a month early.

I’m not really sure what point I’m trying to make here, but I think it’s certainly interesting that this paper made a bug splash a month before the full data was published then did the rounds again.

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