What’s the Deal With News of an AIDS Vaccine?

By Tom Johnson

Sep 24, 2009 6:04pm

Our Medical Unit has been talking with Scientists throughout the day about the exciting announcement that a clinical trial in Thailand showed progress in the effort to develop a vaccine for AIDS:

As we have received more comments about the AIDS vaccine several things are clear.

1. There is definite scientific enthusiasm over these results. We have heard from several AIDS experts who are using words such as “positive step”, “important result” , “first signal” and even “spectacular success.” The scientific excitement is strong although everybody agrees this is not a “home run”.

2. There was so little expectation that this vaccine would be effective. But perhaps more important, there is concern over depending too much on a vaccine to treat AIDS. Robert Schooley, the chairman of infectious disease at UC San Diego and someone who has researched AIDS since 1981, talked about how far away a vaccine is from approval and how some in the scientific community fear there will be too much emphasis on a vaccine. He talks about “a wasted decade” in AIDS research:   

“I think this was because expectations for this trial were low and because even a scientifically successful study would still leave an AIDS vaccine that would be used clinically many years away.  Thus, outside of a soundbite to the public that some scientific progress is being made, the practical implications in terms of clinical medicine and public policy are very modest.  AIDS vaccine development should continue to be a scientific priority but public policy decisions about treatment and prevention should still be made with the mindset that an effective vaccine could still be many decades away.  We saw a wasted decade in which one of the major reasons given for not expanding treatment to where the epidemic was raging was that “a vaccine is around the corner.  This led to complacency and a sense that a vaccine would rescue us from having to address the challenge of treating infected people.  The results of this very well done vaccine trial should not be an excuse to slide back into wishful thinking that we’re going to see a clinically useful vaccine anytime soon.”

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