New York Times op-ed discusses importance of vaccine research
By Seth Berkley
Published: October 19, 2009
“A six-year experimental AIDS vaccine trial has been called into question in a way that is overblown and possibly destructive.”
The New York Times today published an interesting op-ed column from Seth Berkley, the president and CEO of International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. (According to its website, “IAVI is a global not-for-profit, public-private parnership [PPP] working to accelerate the development of a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and AIDS.”) Berkley discusses the controversy surrounding the recently-released results of a vaccine trial in Thailand, which far exceeded expectations by apparently providing protection to a minority of participants.
These results were called into question after
the trial collaborators began to brief researchers privately about additional data, including a second type of analysis that indicated the vaccine regimen had been slightly less effective than the first analysis suggested. This second analysis was not statistically significant, meaning that chance, rather than the protective effect of the vaccine candidate, might explain why fewer volunteers in the vaccinated group than in the placebo group were infected with H.I.V.
Berkley worries that “the trial has been called into question in a way that is overblown and possibly destructive,” doing damage to vaccine research, a field that already suffers from criticism and — in the view of supporters — relative neglect. He argues that regardless of whether the results were statistically significant (they were more or less borderline), they deserve to be taken seriously, at they very least as a learning opportunity. “Statisticians,” he writes, “will tell you it is possible to observe an effect and have reason to think it’s real even if it’s not statistically significant. And if you think it’s real, you ought to examine it carefully.”
Even if the Thai vaccine regimen turns out, on examination, to have had no real benefit, researchers will still learn from the trial, as they do from every study. Moreover, other noteworthy advances featured at the Paris conference this week will offer fresh hope for an AIDS vaccine. Years of investment and dogged science are providing leads for solving one of today’s most pressing research challenges. Some 7,400 new H.I.V. infections occur daily throughout the world. Clearly we need better methods of preventing the spread of H.I.V., and no public health intervention is more powerful or cost-effective against infectious disease than a vaccine.