This Wall Street Journal story reports on a New England Journal of Medicine-published study of the trial of two potential vaccines against Ebola disease. Overall, it’s a brief but well-constructed article on a much anticipated study of two Ebola candidate vaccines. Independent sourcing helps bolster the piece, and so does the detailed explanation of the current study. Readers are told how these findings fit in with the larger body of work developing a vaccine. That said, we think the story would have been stronger had it been more clear on the industry connections behind the study, and if it had discussed availability of the vaccine–especially if a new outbreak occurs.
Vaccine development for Ebola would be a big step forward in combatting a deadly infection. And it can be tempting for journalists to get caught up in the exciting research developments, but as we’ve discussed, journalists and consumers need to immunize themselves against hype about unproven vaccines. This story takes a balanced approach by pointing out limitations of the current research.
Vaccine pricing is complicated and prices are unknown at this point in development (pre-clinical). The story could have addressed cost as a potential limitation even if price is unknown at this time.
The story is very clear in giving data on the increased antibody levels among study participants getting either of the two vaccines, or the placebo. However, readers of stories about potential vaccines basically want to know if the vaccines will actually prevent the disease, and this trial was only able to show that the vaccines increased a person’s antibody response. The story does, to its credit, include a statement from one expert stating that it isn’t known what level of antibody response is needed to protect against the disease.
The story includes potential harms from the vaccines: “The level of serious adverse events was higher in the placebo group than either vaccine group, and ‘most of the serious adverse events were attributed to malaria.'”
The story appropriately states that this was the “first placebo-controlled study of two vaccines against the Ebola virus.” It is also clear in pointing to the study’s shortcomings, offering several different limitations, such as “Ebola cases in Liberia began to dwindle early in 2015, and the outbreak there was declared over on May 9 of that year. By the time this work was fully under way, it was too late to see if vaccines actually prevented Ebola sickness and death.”
To the reporter’s credit, no disease mongering.
The story included information from an unaffiliated expert, and it alerts readers that pharmaceutical companies developed the two vaccines. That’s good reporting and useful context. However, the story also says that the latest study was conducted by the “U.S. and Liberian governments and elsewhere,” while neglecting to mention that “elsewhere” includes GlaxoSmithKline and Merck (which employs several of the researchers). The story also doesn’t mention that several of the researchers have other economic ties to the companies. This one’s a close call, but there’s not quite enough information to clear our bar.
We’ll give story a not applicable in this category since there currently is no proven successful treatment against Ebola.
The availability of an Ebola vaccine would be reasonable to address. For example, it a new epidemic developed today, would one of these vaccines be used? This is an important clinical point that researchers might have been able to provide information about.
Since hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola are so deadly, the possibility of new vaccines that might be successful against them is certainly novel enough for a story. In this case, it reports a strong antibody response against the virus suggesting a possible protection against an often-fatal disease. The story does a good job of putting the new studies in context.
This story does not appear to rely on a news release.