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NBC says Zika vaccine trial has ‘striking results’ but it hasn’t even been tested in people yet


3 Star


Striking' Results from Early Zika Vaccine Trial

Our Review Summary

Mosquito biteThis is a story about several vaccines in development for the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus.

An unfortunate headline notes “striking” results from “early Zika vaccine trial,” suggesting a human clinical trial of this particular vaccine had already begun, when in fact the reference is to a pre-clinical trial in monkeys.

But the news story is more balanced with a good summary of another vaccine–being developed at the National Institute of Health–that has just begun testing in humans. However, the story should have included an independent vaccine expert to provide perspective on the long development road ahead for any of these vaccines.


Why This Matters

Zika virus infections continue to spread across certain parts of Latin American, the Caribbean and Florida, and public health/infectious disease researchers have advanced the development of a vaccine at something approaching warp speed for scientific achievement of this sort. Even at the current pace, however, a vaccine ready for general use is still several years away at the very least, and news reports like this one serve a public interest role in keeping people aware of this serious public health threat.



Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Putting a cost estimate on experimental vaccines would be difficult to do, so we’ll rate this N/A.

However, there is an opportunity in any story about Zika interventions to address the overall costs and financial needs. Congress, for example, has been in the news for months over its failure to earmark funds for Zika control requested by the White House and federal public health officials–how would vaccine funding be affected by that?

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


Mixed bag.  We could have gone either way with this grade but give the story the benefit of the doubt. The story does detail the findings of one of the four vaccines being tested: That 16 monkeys appeared to become immune to Zika. More information about the three other vaccine trials should have been given, though.

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

Not Satisfactory

The news story notes that the killed-virus vaccine is safer than another line of vaccines under development, but it does not address the presence or absence of any side effects or potential harms/shortcomings of the new experimental vaccine if and when this vaccine is tested in humans. One extremely important safety concern, for example, will be how it affects pregnant women and fetuses.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story should have let readers that the current evidence for the “striking results’ is low quality, in that it’s only only a small study conducted in animals. We’re far, far away from knowing if this vaccine will safely protect, say, pregnant human women and fetuses.

Words matter in such stories and there was an unfortunate flaw in this sentence: “Three experimental vaccines being developed by researchers at Harvard’s Beth Israel Hospital and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research had already shown promise in mice — but monkeys are a much better model of how the medicines will work in humans.” Those two verbs convey a certainty that does not exist.  Monkeys can be a better model of how the medicines might work in humans.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


It does not disease monger.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story quotes only sources directly involved with the research.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story does a good job of noting other vaccine types and the clinical testing of a competing vaccine.

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


The story offers information about possible timetables for clinical testing and availability. It could have been more emphatic that there are a lot of unknowns here, though.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The news story does a good job of explaining how the Harvard-Walter Reed vaccine differs from another one further along in development.

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


The news story does not appear to be based on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 9 Satisfactory

Comments (2)

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Sarah Anderson

August 11, 2016 at 9:32 am

is there a reason why you only mentioned the NIH vaccine and didn’t include the Inovio Pharmaceuticals vaccine which initiated a human trial a month before the NIH and dosed their first person last month???


    Joy Victory

    August 11, 2016 at 10:01 am

    Hi Sarah–are you asking us specifically? Our review is looking at what NBC News discussed in their coverage–you’d want to contact them to ask why they did or didn’t include this trial you reference.