Opinion Pieces Criticize Media Coverage of VaxGen AIDS Vaccine Trial Results
Three newspapers over the last few days have published opinion pieces criticizing the media's portrayal of VaxGen's AIDS vaccine clinical trial results. VaxGen last week announced that its experimental AIDS vaccine AIDSVAX reduced the rate of new HIV infections by only 3.8% among people who received the vaccine, compared with clinical trial participants who received a placebo injection. However, the company said that the vaccine was effective among African Americans, Asians and other non-white, non-Hispanic volunteers (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 2/27). The opinion pieces are summarized below:
Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Anyone who scanned [the headlines about the vaccine results] would have missed the real news. ... The vaccine did work. It just didn't work on white people," columnist Sam Fulwood writes in a Plain Dealer opinion piece. Fulwood says that "as with most medical studies," the AIDSVAX study had too few black volunteers to yield conclusive results. The company will have to conduct additional tests, for which "investors should be lining up," Fulwood states. However, "NIH remains on the sidelines," and the negative media coverage surrounding the vaccine may have "scare[d] away public support for HIV/AIDS clinical testing and driv[en] off [the] venture capitalists who are the ones putting up most of the money," Fulwood concludes (Fulwood, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 3/1).
San Francisco Chronicle: Last week's coverage of the VaxGen trials "exposed weaknesses in the media's ability to explain complex science and statistics," Chronicle reporter Tom Abate writes. Abate calls his own article on the subject "a failure to communicate" and goes on to clarify areas that he did not cover in his article, including an explanation of how the company may verify the vaccine's efficacy and why the vaccine may have different effects on different racial groups. While Peggy Johnston, assistant director of vaccine research at NIH, said that the study was "of the highest standards," Abate states that "the same can't be said ... for how the media explained this data to a public that included African Americans who have cause to be deeply suspicious of medical research," considering the legacy of mistrust engendered by the unethical Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Abate concludes, "This is only the first chapter in the AIDS vaccine. As we write future installments, we'll have to do better" (Abate, San Francisco Chronicle, 3/3).
- San Jose Mercury News: In a Mercury News opinion piece, columnist Loretta Green writes that while the trial was a failure in the eyes of VaxGen because it did not hit the 30% effectiveness mark needed to gain FDA approval, she was "annoyed" by media claims that the vaccine was "useless" and an overall "failure." She states, "Certainly" the fact that the vaccine proved helpful to some minority groups makes it "worthy of scrutiny for future testing and research." Green concludes that the trial results should "inspire a mandate about broad representation in AIDS studies and drug trials," as well as a fairer "presentation and perspective" of trial statistics in the media (Green, San Jose Mercury News, 3/1).