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Newsweek says ‘new vaccine could stop heroin abuse’ — in four monkeys, at least


3 Star




Our Review Summary

rhesus monkeys

Credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble

The story describes early development of a vaccine for blocking the high from heroin. The story, especially the headline, makes the leap that because it’s worked in a few monkeys, it will work in people (and be safe). It’s just too soon in the scientific research process for anyone to know if this “vaccine” will work in people.

To its credit, the story did include some comments from an independent expert who discussed how the vaccine–if it ever comes to market–would not be a “panacea” for heroin addiction.


Why This Matters

Thousands of Americans are dying every year from heroin overdoses and the numbers are increasing. Along with the deaths, there are also viral infections from dirty needles, such as hepatitis C and HIV. New ways to treat heroin addiction are needed–but that doesn’t mean journalists should shine a spotlight on preclinical research, potentially raising false hopes of readers.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Given the level of development, cost is not a consideration at this juncture.

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

Not Satisfactory

Benefits were not put in quantified terms. Instead, qualitative terms are used. Phrasing like, “elicited a successful immune response that neutralized heroin…” and, “…hinting that their immune systems were already primed…” provide insight to medical professionals, but are perhaps confusing to lay readers. With research this preliminary, far more caveats were needed to pass this criterion.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story notes “The researchers did not observe any harmful side effects from the intervention.” Having said that, again the study was conducted in four monkeys under highly controlled lab conditions–not in humans. The comment of one of the authors, “We believe this vaccine candidate will prove safe for human trials,” feels premature. On what grounds does he believe this?

To have passed this criteria, the story should have said the harms are unknown.

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

Not Satisfactory

It’s not until the fifth paragraph that the story reveals the heroin-tetanus-toxoid vaccine has been administered to mice and four monkeys. This is irresponsible to readers who have been primed to assume otherwise, based on the story’s headline and initial statements. Later in the story we learn that no human research is planned, but are given no explanation as to why.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There is no evidence of disease mongering here. Having said that, we would have liked to have seen a comment or two on the rising abuse of heroin and other opioids.

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

Not Satisfactory

The comments of an independent knowledgable source provide balance to the story. However, the story did not disclose that the researcher, Kim D. Janda, has filed a  patent application on this technology. See “Heroin Haptens, Immunoconjugates and Related Uses.”

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The independent source’s quote explains that this would likely not become a panacea, and other treatment options would still be needed.

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


The story explains that research has not yet taken place in humans, indirectly inferring that it’s not available.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story does not suggest that this research is novel or unique. As noted, other attempts to develop a vaccine for opiate addiction have not worked out.

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


The story closely resembles the news release from the Scripps Institute in substance and in the use of quotes from the researchers. However, because an outside source was quoted, it doesn’t rely solely on the news release.

Total Score: 5 of 9 Satisfactory


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