One hundred Seattleites who were participating in an international AIDS vaccine trial had been hoping they were doing something that would help others. Instead, they’ve found out they may have inadvertently put themselves at risk: that’s because the test vaccine they’ve been given may make them more, not less, susceptible to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Those locals represent some of the 3,000 participants worldwide who were participating in a study to determine the efficacy of a hopeful AIDS vaccine called Step. Trials of the vaccine, created by Merck & Co., were halted in September when the vaccine proved to be ineffective. By Sept. 21 researchers had determined that of the two groups of trial participants — one that received the vaccine, the other a placebo — HIV infection rates were higher in those who had received the vaccine: 24 HIV infections among 741 men with at least one vaccine dose, compared to 21 HIV within 761 who received the placebo. In all, participants receive three inoculations.
For weeks, news of the findings has been percolating around the globe, arising first in South Africa in late October. There, researchers informed the vast majority of the 801 participants of the vaccine’s failure through text messages left on cell phones. Here, the news spread through local newspapers, in a reprint of a Washington Post article in the Seattle Times on Oct. 25, a front-page story in the following day’s Seattle Gay News.
Along with news reports, local participants were informed of the vaccine’s inability to combat HIV on Oct. 25 (the same day as the Post article), in a letter from trial researchers. By Nov. 1, participants had begun receiving phone calls informing them of higher susceptibility for those having received the vaccine. With participants, who had already finished their round of dosages, unaware of whether they had received the vaccine or the placebo — a practice referred to as a “double-blind” study — they were given the option to “unblind” themselves or allow researchers to continue gathering data.