Yes, the Merck trial of an experimental vaccine failed to show efficacy. But it was not a failure as a trial. It had a hugely important outcome: We now know one preparation that will not work as a vaccine. Before this trial we knew only one other direction that had failed, so our knowledge has doubled.
Knowing what not to do is useful because it informs further research. Of course, we would rather have successful trials that tell us we are going in the right direction, but AIDS vaccine development is hard, and negative trials are not a surprise. Because the trial was so professionally accomplished, we can trust its results.
Now what we need are more such trials of materials different enough from the Merck materials that we can learn something from them. The job of the research community is to make the judgment of what materials fit this criterion. But to give up at this point would be criminal. Luckily, the cool heads in the AIDS research community are not giving up -- they are searching for new directions. There is a healthy debate about what those directions should be. But to our minds, we need more human clinical research, not less, if we are to find the magic formula that will protect people against AIDS.
David Baltimore is president emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology. Seth Berkley is president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.
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