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WSJ wisely reports on Ebola vaccines: ‘It is unknown…what antibody levels are needed to protect patients’

Rating

4 Star

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Ebola Vaccines Show Promise in New Study

Our Review Summary

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.

 

Why This Matters

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.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

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.

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

Satisfactory

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.

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

Satisfactory

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.'”

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

Satisfactory

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.”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

To the reporter’s credit, no disease mongering.

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

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

We’ll give story a not applicable in this category since there currently is no proven successful treatment against Ebola.

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

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

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.

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

Satisfactory

This story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 9 Satisfactory

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