AIDS Fight Hits Racial Divide
April 1, 2003
VaxGen's findings about its vaccine AIDSVAX in February offered a tantalizing hint that it may protect some black people from AIDS, but the results have also triggered a racial face-off between the two groups that need a vaccine most.
The announcement instantly provoked a vehement rebuttal from predominantly white, gay AIDS advocacy groups and some vocal scientists, who noted that the vaccine failed to protect the majority of volunteers, who were whites and Hispanics. The skeptics dismissed the finding as statistical sleight-of-hand by a company struggling to salvage a 10-year, $200 million research effort. The vaccine failed to meet its key test by failing to outperform a dummy injection in the 5,400-person trial.
Black AIDS advocates were angered by the quick condemnation of the first evidence suggesting that an AIDS vaccine might work in humans, especially in the population burdened by half of all new cases of the disease. Phill Wilson of the UCLA African-American AIDS Policy and Training Center said the study did not create racial tension among AIDS advocates: It revealed a rift that has existed for years. "Quite frankly," he said, "the study simply forced us to look at it."
Nevertheless, the finding sent researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network in Seattle scurrying to see whether they can find any race-related differences in protection among volunteers in all previous trials. "The real story here is that the scientific community is starting to take a long, hard look at what differences we might expect in men and women by race," said Steve Wakefield, the network's associate director for community relations and education.
On Feb. 23, VaxGen President Donald Francis revealed the findings to key scientists and activists in an invitation-only conference call. The results were to be released through the news media the next morning before the stock market opened. John Moore of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York said he was blindsided by the way the company embraced such preliminary findings. "I knew they'd do something to keep themselves alive. I didn't know they'd focus on race," he said. "Once they played the race card, everything changed. Science took a back seat. I was appalled."
04.01.03; Steve Sternberg
This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.