Experts question Gates-Glaxo malaria vaccine report

 
Flickr, Aya Rosen

Many of the world’s leading vaccine experts and the prestigious British journal Nature are raising questions about the potential efficacy of an experimental malaria vaccine — and the way it is being promoted by scientists supported by the Gates Foundation.

As Nature News’ Declan Butler reports in Malaria vaccine results raise scrutiny:

To judge from last week’s headlines, scientists had made a big breakthrough in the long campaign to create a malaria vaccine ….

Yet several leading vaccine researchers, who are critical of the unusual decision to publish partial trial data, argue that the results raise questions about whether the RTS,S candidate vaccine can actually win approval.

I said much the same thing earlier, Three reasons not to get too excited about the Gates-Glaxo malaria vaccine, based on mostly private conversations I had with researchers and experts at the Gates Foundation’s Malaria Forum in Seattle.

Most attending the malaria confab wanted to share their critiques of the vaccine — made by GlaxoSmithKline and called RTS,S — privately given the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s stated desire for optimism. The Gates Foundation, through Seattle-based PATH, funds the RTS,S study.

Critiquing the media — and the researchers

In my earlier post, I was largely taking the media to task for so uncritically and so breathlessly reporting the interim results — which showed the vaccine protected about half of those immunized, not so great — as “a breakthrough” or “major milestone.”

Nature News focuses its criticism on the researchers doing the study.

Declan Butler reports that many experts question why the RTS,S scientific team felt compelled to report such incomplete results. Some even question their basic findings. One malaria expert,  Judith Epstein at the Military Malaria Vaccine Program in Maryland, said the vaccine appears to be only 30 percent effective over time:

Recalculating the trial data shows that RTS,S protected just 35–36% after 12 months, she says, adding that the paper should have presented both numbers. The study also showed no detectable impact on mortality, and it is too early to tell whether RTS,S actually protects against malaria, or merely delays infection.

The study continues until the final results are in sometime in 2014. But these criticisms certainly indicate other vaccine candidates should be explored since this one may not pan out.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.