A story out in the last few days illustrates the danger of baselessly claiming the scientific high ground and using brute force in place of reason and honest and open inquiry. A report from the Santa Cruz Sentinel carries the headline “UC Santa Cruz professor develops HIV vaccine.” The opening two paragraphs follow:
For 30 years, UC Santa Cruz professor and vaccine developer Phil Berman has been chasing a moving target — the insidious, ever-changing HIV virus [sic] — and now, finally, he thinks he has it cornered.
Berman’s lab has developed an experimental vaccine he believes will guard against HIV and AIDS. The model is expected to go to clinical trial within three years.
A couple points worth noting. First, this is not the first time a promising HIV vaccine has been isolated. In 2009, clinical trials were initiated on a vaccine called HVTN 505 developed by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In 2013, the trials were shut down after federal inspectors ascertained that the vaccine did as much harm as good, but the research has been ongoing.
The second point worth noting is an historical one. On Apr. 23, 1984, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler announced that Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute had identified the virus that causes AIDS, adding, “We hope to have a vaccine ready for testing in about two years.” That optimistic note was sounded 31 years ago, yet the search continues.
But that’s not the only prediction about the disease once called the “gay plague” that has proven wrong. As recently as 2002, Peter Lamptey, a physician and head of the Family Health International AIDS Institute, in Arlington, Va., wrote in the British Medical Journal that AIDS would someday surpass the Black Death as mankind’s greatest scourge:
It is a serious comparison. A total of 65 million people will have died of AIDS over 15 years. The Black Death happened 700 years ago when science was negligible. Yet despite our modern technology, today we have a disease that is killing a vast number of people. The diseases are similar because of the vast scope of death, the destruction of families, and the destruction of the economies of nations.
The consensus has since changed dramatically.