More of the Same in South Africa

Nowhere does HIV threaten more than in Africa. In 2001 in South Africa 22% of the population was infected. This was an opportunity for an entirely new approach to research funding, such as giving the natural genius of South Africa's medical researchers its head. 

     Instead, the South African Medical Research Council decided to pour funds into an approach which had been repeatedly tried, and failed, in first world countries - the attempt to obtain a vaccine against HIV. The head of the South African MRC lamented (circa 2002) that getting medical researchers to work together was "like herding cats," but reported that by use of the financial stick they were making progress. 

     The possibility that the researchers might have their own ideas about tackling the scourge of AIDS did not appear to have occurred to him. Perhaps, once again, the Thrasybalus anecdote applies. By financially decapitating South Africa's genius, the Medical Research Council, like its equivalent organizations in first world countries, was revealed as part of the problem, not the solution to the problem. This was underlined in 2007 when a vaccine introduced by Merck was found to actually make the disease worse! 

    The thinking was far from subtle. Everyone knew that immunization could prevent diphtheria, etc., so why not try it for AIDS? An easily marketable proposition, and a shoe-in for funds, funds, funds! But many who had some understanding of the biology of the AIDS virus predicted this would never work. So they could not, in good faith, put in grant applications in this respect. Yet, while they committed intellectual suicide, the funds rolled on and on for the immunizers. More subtle projects got low or zero funds. 

    Of course, the suggestion that an immunization trial on Thialand had succeeded was loudly trumpeted. Jon Cohen (2009) in Science noted that any "success" was highly qualified. And Declan Butler (2009) in Nature noted that "the jury is still out". An Editorial in the same issue entitled "Mind the Spin" noted that:

"the selective initial presentation of the data are well outside the scientific norms for presenting the results of clinical trials," and "such behaviour is corrosive to the process of scholarly scientific communication."

It is becoming increasingly evident that we have been led down a false trail by the immunizers. Are heads rolling? Are we now putting more into the more subtle projects? Not so!  

    It seems that we learn nothing from history. Like today's "Health Czars", in the 1930s Stalin wanted quick results in agriculture, which Nikolai Vavilov could not meet by the slow and subtle, but sure, methods of the new genetics. Enter Trofim Lysenko with a vernalization "cure" that was easy to market. Lyskenko seized the crown and ruled Russian science for decades while millions starved (as did Vavilov himself in a gulag)! Later, it was proclaimed as the "biggest fraud in biology" (Pringle 2008). In his biography of Vavilov, Mark Popovsky (1984) noted:

Distinguished biologists with whom I have spoken took the view that there was something almost mystical about Lysenko's career, for regardless of failures, Lysenko kept his position. Despite all the promises made by Lysenko's "progressive biologists" and "true Darwinists", harvest yields in the 1930s did not increase.

Is it right to compare the millions of lives lost due to the successful, but unproductive, marketing of vernalization, to the perhaps millions of lives lost due to the successful (but so far unproductive) marketing of immunization against HIV? We do not know. But what we do know is that vernalization seemed very reasonable at the time. So the take home message is hedge your bets and let more funds flow to the apparently less plausible projects.

Butler, D (2009) Jury still out on HIV vaccine results. Nature 461, 1187.

Cohen J (2009) Beyond Thailand: Making Sense of a Qualified AIDS Vaccine "Success". Science 326, 652-3.

Popovsky M (1984) The Vavilov Affair. The Shoe String Press, Hamden.

Pringle P (2008) The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Donald Forsdyke October 31st 2009


In September 2010 the "Council of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise" issued its "2010 Scientific Strategic Plan" on the pages of Nature Medicine (vol. 16, 981-989). It concluded:

"Over the past 18 months, major scientific advances have signaled the beginning of an important new phase in HIV vaccine research. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that the epidemic is in danger of spinning out of control."

That, in its search for an ever-increasing slice of the AIDS Research funding pie, the HIV Vaccine Enterprise might be even more out of control, seems not to have crossed the Council's collective mind!

Donald Forsdyke, September 8th 2010

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