Sensationalist hype in South African newspapers could damage vaccine trials

The Cape Weekend Argus has a report in it today – by “Staff Reporter and Daily Mail” – that exemplifies everything I hate about lazy, irresponsible journalism. It’s not the first time this newspaper stable of floor-wiping material has hyped the so-called dangerous TB vaccine, but this is the first time it’s been so prominent.

So, let us clear things up a little.

1. Monkeys died in the TB CHALLENGE part of the study – NOT because of the vaccine, which has been determined to be absolutely safe.

2. Because the vaccine was proved to be safe in MULTIPLE animal species, and in humans, and had been shown to have some efficacy in OTHER animal studies, it was used in babies – in studies approved by multiple Ethics Committees, including here at UCT.

3. IT WAS SAFE IN BABIES – as it was in every other organism it was tested on.

4. Despite the picture and caption leading one towards the conclusion that SA’s Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi disapproved of use of the vaccine, he in fact was very supportive.

So, all in all, an appallingly bad piece of journalism, which sensationally hypes a very serious issue by ascribing harm to a vaccine that is in fact very safe. Not necessarily efficacious in humans as a similar one was not for malaria, but SAFE. In addition, the trial was over in 2012 – meaning any harm would have been obvious by now, and there has been none.

The British Medical Journal, in its analysis of the whole issue, had this to say:

“While we strongly agree with calls for rigor in conducting, and openness in reporting, preclinical studies, we are confident that moving forward with this efficacy trial was justified”.

So there you have it. The ONLY controversial aspect of the use of this vaccine was the fact that it failed to protect monkeys in a live TB challenge. The vaccine was NOT dangerous; use of it in babies was NOT unethical, and in fact has been lauded as a step forward in our understanding of TB vaccinology.

Time to up your reporting game, Weekend Argus!!

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