|Hard to Kill|
Members of the AIDS
industry would have been sighing with relief today as the AIDS vaccine trial by
the much heralded Vaxgen showed mixed results - none
of them entirely successful. Infection rates with the vaccinated subjects were
not significantly different from those given a placebo.
The obvious way to test an AIDS vaccine is to give it to people, and then
expose them to AIDS. But getting volunteers for such a trial is a little hard.
Further, with no current war serious enough to impose a draft, there is no pool
of conscientious objectors to force into the volunteer programs.
So instead they got several thousand brave volunteers in high-risk categories
to be injected with either vaccine or a placebo (no, they don't get to choose
which, and don't even know), and get tested a year later for AIDS.
Giving many subjects a placebo in these cases is a good idea, and also
standard practice for scientific experiments. Not
telling people whether they got the placebo or the vaccine is critical to avoid
people changing their behavior, or reporting phantom symptoms with the
vaccine. In this case preventing behavior change may have been a very good
idea, because the subjects were all in a high-risk area already, and subjects
may have been inclined to take more risks if they thought they were
However it's not clear that this didn't happen. Subjects may not be told whether
they have the vaccine or the placebo, but in many cases people can tell anyway.
Drugs and vaccines nearly always have side effects, and giving people
'placebos' with side effects is normally regarded as unethical by medical
ethics committees (even if it saves lives).
So maybe the vaccine was partially effective, but the subject's increased
risk-taking behavior skewed the results? Unlikely, but still the kind of
complication which the honest researcher has to consider, and the dishonest
researcher has to carefully ignore.
The other interesting blip on the statistics package is that the Mongoloid
and Negroid (that's Asians and African Americans for the politically
correct types who object to the scientific terms) fared better than the
rest. The vaccine lowered their contraction rates significantly. Unfortunately
for the researchers though, the numbers of those subjects in the trail was very
Of course with 20 million AIDS sufferers in Africa they could do another
test quite cheaply. On the other hand, with African leaders claiming that HIV
and AIDS are unrelated, there might be some political complications.
The AIDS industry gravy train looked like coming to a shuddering stop, but it's
not threatened by a solution to the problem just yet. Quite the opposite in
fact - with a solution seeming so tantalizingly close, money will become more
available, not less.
But with many, many other vaccines in the pipeline, an effective AIDS
vaccine is probably only a few years away, and it will be a significant
political event. Will the breakthrough come from a government funded university, or from a privately funded
company anticipating a return on their massive investments?
Doubtless both sides of the political spectrum will try to claim some kind
victory regardless of the outcome.