Thailand AIDS Vaccine Trial: Back Story Troubles

Aids virus

My report on the largest AIDS vaccine trial ever done – and, more importantly, the only such study to show effectiveness against HIV – was published Monday as part of a broader report on where we are at in the search for an effective AIDS vaccine.

The study was done in Thailand, where I went a few months ago at the request of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition. Mitchell Warren, director of AVAC, said he wanted an independent journalist to do an assessment of this historic project. His views were featured Monday on Huffington Post explaining the broader significance of the study.

Maybe Mitchell knew ahead of time that this was a controversial story, but I didn’t. I went to Thailand believing the Thai Prime-Boost vaccine trial was just a scientific success story. It was a success, in terms of its stunning results. Science progresses by baby steps and this first demonstration of immune protection is a success even if we do not yet have a usable vaccine.

But when I got to Thailand, I learned from Thai AIDS activists about some serious problems that could have derailed the whole thing — and may, if not recognized and resolved, impede future progress in AIDS vaccine research.

Basically, the Thai government didn’t really understand that for clinical research to succeed the community has to be convinced of its value and of the need to participate in these studies.

Three young woman volunteers in Thai AIDS vaccine study

This study enrolled 16,000 people, mostly young people, who had to come in to clinics repeatedly to get multiple vaccinations, get blood drawn and subject themselves to a lot of scrutiny. I met some of them; an impressive bunch of young people who recognize the urgent need for an effective AIDS vaccine. But many threatened to drop out during the trial due to lack of adequate community engagement.

Thailand is a democracy, but officials there still have a tendency to tell people what to do. That doesn’t work in proper clinical research and the Thai government discovered this. You can read all about it in AVAC’s report.

A side note: Was this journalism? I think so. Many of my traditional journalist friends tell me that because I was paid by AVAC, this was not journalism. Yet some of these are the same people who think running someone’s blog about their love of cats on the Seattle PI’s web site is something now called “citizen journalism.” I don’t know the answer to the question. I’ll let readers judge for themselves.

Tom

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