Spanish HIV Vaccine Story Gets Lots of Attention -- Here's Why

October 4, 2011

Paul E. Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, M.D., is director of the HIV Program and Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

If you're looking for a good way to pass the time while running errands, traveling, or walking to work, I highly recommend the Freakonomics podcasts, which have taught me all sorts of interesting things.

Such as the fact that suicide is more common than murder in the USA, but gets way less attention. And how a restaurant can recover from serving a salad with a mouse in it. (Yes, waiter, there's a mouse in my salad.) Or how much do our efforts to be better parents really matter? Not as much as we'd like to think, I'm afraid.

Which brings me to their comprehensive review of people who predict the future -- markets, politics, sports, agriculture, you name it. Turns out that the kind of people most likely to make an accurate prediction are the ones who pretty much tell you what you already expect. But they're too boring -- anyone can say things will turn out the obvious way -- so we have an insatiable demand for people who go the opposite route, making surprising predictions that go far out on a limb, foretelling something shocking or incredible.

And paradoxically, rather than taking these bold pundits to task for being wrong, we mostly forget about them until they get it right -- at which point, we proclaim them geniuses. What sports fan of a certain age can forget Joe Namath's shocking prediction in 1969 that the Jets would beat the Colts in Super Bowl III? (They did.)

And it didn't matter that the guy predicting the 2008 market collapse had been saying the same thing every year for more than a decade, now he's known as the guy who got it right! What vision!

(As for baseball prognostication, don't get me started. Hmm, could be trouble.)

Which brings me to this HIV vaccine research done by a group of investigators in Spain, which has generated a fair bit of news coverage:

Researchers at the Spanish Superior Scientific Research Council (CSIC) have successfully completed Phase I human clinical trials of a HIV vaccine that came out with top marks after 90% of volunteers developed an immunological response against the virus. The MVA-B vaccine draws on the natural capabilities of the human immune system and "has proven to be as powerful as any other vaccine currently being studied, or even more", says Mariano Esteban, head researcher from CSIC's National Biotech Centre.

With the caveat that I am not an HIV vaccine researcher, I was surprised at how much news these early data generated -- mostly because the study only involved 26 people.

And, to be blunt, also because the first report of the research in English occurred in the on-line "journal" called "Gizmag". Unless there's a report at a scientific meeting or journal I'm missing.

Regardless, it's safe to say it will be hard to know when one of these highly-touted advances in the HIV vaccine effort actually turns out to be the real thing.

Someone making this prediction will eventually be right. Problem is that these could be the people just as likely -- or more likely -- to get it wrong.

Paul Sax is Clinical Director of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital. His blog HIV and ID Observations is part of Journal Watch, where he is Editor-in-Chief of Journal Watch AIDS Clinical Care.

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This article was provided by NEJM Journal Watch. NEJM Journal Watch is a publication of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
See Also
Spanish HIV Vaccine Shows 90 Percent Success in Early Trial

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