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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Universal Flu Vaccine?

The Guardian is reporting a new flu vaccine that could be a great boon.  When I first saw this story, I was quite excited about it.  Now that excitement is quite a bit more reserved.  I read the article, and it seems like the media is at its headline grabbing tricks again.  While this study shows promise, I think it is much too early to make any definitive proclamations about this vaccine.

Vaccine Times covered it quite well:
Nevertheless, I must advise caution with this news. First, a red flag must always go up whenever we encounter “science by press release”. The author has sent her results to a scientific journal; the paper hasn’t even been peer reviewed and published yet, but they are already giving interviews to the media. That is worrisome to me; not a deal-killer in and of itself, but a red flag nonetheless.

Second, the study is tiny, only 22 participants, and the control group didn’t even receive a placebo, or a regular flu shot for comparison; I don’t see how randomization can be properly achieved with such small numbers either. Also, the supposed benefits are not clearly quantified. We are being told that “fewer” vaccine recipients got the flu than non-vaccinated people. Exactly how many “fewer” are we talking about? How much variance can be chalked up to pure chance when the sample size is so small? We are also told that the vaccinated people had “more” T-cells and that they were “more activated”. The same questions apply here; what does “more” mean exactly and how does that relate to actual flu infection rates? We’re not told, thus another red flag.

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