Huge AIDS Vaccine Trial
'Should Be Scrapped'

By Philip Cohen

Two government agencies in the US are about to waste tens of millions of dollars by running separate trials of almost identical AIDS vaccination regimes, claims a controversial commentary in the journal Nature.

In it, John Moore, an AIDS researcher at Cornell University's Weill Medical College in New York City, argues that one of the two vaccine trials planned for 2002 should be scrapped. One is led by the US Department of Defense, the other by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Both trials will test very similar vaccine regimes: a dose of canary pox virus engineered to express HIV-1 proteins, followed by a booster shot of the HIV protein gp120.

The duplication is the result of competition between the rival agencies and has little scientific rationale, Moore argues. Together the trials will involve 25,000 volunteers and cost more than $100 million. Yet few experts believe this vaccination regime will protect people from infection, Moore claims. Researchers may learn something nevertheless, but that only justifies doing one trial, he says.

Moore fears that more failed trials will erode public confidence that an effective vaccine can be found. He recommends that the NIH put its weight behind the defence department trial, as it is due to begin first.

Infection risk

The NIH wasn't able to provide an official response before New Scientist went to press. But one government AIDS researcher, who didn't want to be identified, was angered by Moore's charges. The two trials cannot be combined because they were designed for groups with different risks of infection, he says. And we will not know if it works unless we test it in people.

But Dennis Burton, an AIDS researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in California, says many researchers agree with Moore. "If this was a vaccine that held real promise, the situation would be different," he says. "But it doesn't merit such a huge investment."

Since the NIH's trial plans haven't been finalised, Burton expects Moore's article to trigger a lively debate. But Moore himself told New Scientist that he was too busy to discuss the article. "Also," he says, "I don't really want to add fuel to any fire I have ignited."

Journal reference: Nature (vol 415, p 365)

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