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Scientists Puzzle Over Minor Success Of AIDS Vaccine


5 Star

Scientists Puzzle Over Minor Success Of AIDS Vaccine

Our Review Summary

While many other news organizations were calling a Thailand AIDS vaccine trial a breakthrough, this story provides caveats, some skepticism, loads of context, comparisons with other vaccines and historical perspective. 

You can read the criterion by criterion analysis below, but this is the way early announcements of experimental research results should be covered.

Kudos to David Brown and to the Washington Post. 


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

At this early phase of research it’s understandable that cost wouldn’t be discussed.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


It provided the outcomes in absolute terms – which we appreciate:  "Of 8,197 people who got vaccine, 51 became infected in the three years after their shots. Of the 8,198 who got placebo injections, 74 became infected. While that difference — 23 infections out of more than 16,000 people studied — is significant, it could have occurred by chance."

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Were any harms – besides the lack of protection in most trial participants – reported in the Thai trial?  We don’t know from the story. 

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


This is the strength of the story – by itself and in comparison with many other stories by many other news organizations.

Over and over and throughout the story, the evidence was questioned. Excerpts:

  • "The results were barely significant on statistical grounds."
  •  "It is unlikely — but not impossible — that any country would consider it effective enough to be used as a public health measure against HIV."
  • "We really need to go through the data to see if there are effects here that are potentially useful," said Col. Jerome Kim, a physician involved in the study, which was run by the U.S. Army, the National Institutes of Health and Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health.
  • Other researchers were less sanguine about the study but did not want to be quoted by name as being skeptical when only a few details of the results have been released.

    "I just think it’s too early really," said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for that reason. "It is in a kind of gray zone, and I think we should really get the data and look at it and see what it all means."

  • "…it could have occurred by chance."
  • "But even the basic results have left scientists puzzling over the vaccine’s action, given what they know about its two components."

And there was more.  You get the picture. 

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease-mongering in this story.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


Interviews with Dr. Fauci of NIH, with one of the investigators, and with an unnamed skeptic. 

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


Good job comparing this vaccine approach with other vaccines.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The experimental stage of the vaccine research is clear from the story, as when it states:

The vaccine is not licensed or being produced in large amounts. It is unlikely — but not impossible — that any country would consider it effective enough to be used as a public health measure against HIV.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story gave lots of detail about the novelty of this approach, but questions: "How a vaccine that induces both a weak antibody response and a poor cell-mediated one can protect some people from HIV infection is the big initial mystery of this study."

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


It is abundantly clear that this story did not rely on a news release, but, rather, was based on enterprise journalism with context and with a historical perspective. 

Total Score: 8 of 9 Satisfactory


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