Examples of media coverage:
- British scientists on brink of HIV cure (headline now corrected to “British scientists hopeful for HIV cure”) – The Sunday Times, October 2, 2016 (registration required)
- HIV cure close after disease ‘vanishes’ from blood of British man (now amended to the still inaccurate “HIV cure possible after disease becomes undetectable in blood of British man”) – The Daily Telegraph, October 2, 2016
- Why talk of a cure for HIV is premature – Fergus Walsh, BBC News, October 3, 2016 (an accurate story written with the cooperation of the researchers).
Community-based responses and articles:
- Media reports of a British HIV cure ‘breakthrough’ are premature – Keith Alcorn, AIDSMap, October 3, 2016
- U.K. Papers Erroneously Report, Yet Again, That an HIV Cure Is Near – Ben Ryan, POZ Magazine, October 3, 2016
- No Proof of New HIV Cure, Despite Headlines — Here’s What We Know – Roger Pebody, TheBody.com, October 3, 2016
- Reports Of UK HIV Cure Are Misleading – Miranda Smith, Doherty Institute/NAPWHA HIV Cure Website, October 4, 2016
- ‘Infuriating’: People With HIV, Doctors, Advocates Speak Out on Bad ‘HIV Cure’ Reporting – JD Davids, TheBody.com, October 4, 2016
Unknown, the original Times story appears to be based on interviews with researchers and a single study participant.
These stories, and particularly the headlines, are highly misleading and inaccurate. The subject matter is an ongoing clinical trial in the UK that is not expected to cure anyone of HIV infection. Known as the RIVER study, it represents an important first exploration of the combined effects of a therapeutic HIV vaccine and an HDAC inhibitor (vorinostat) on the HIV reservoir in individuals who started antiretroviral therapy (ART) very soon after becoming infected.
The stories state that one participant has undetectable HIV viral load in their blood but this is normal for individuals on antiretroviral therapy. No measurements of the HIV reservoir have yet been performed. The journalist appears to have interviewed the study participant and misunderstood the significance of undetectable viral load, a misunderstanding that has now beem amplified in secondary media reporting.
The current best approach for assessing whether HIV is still present is to interrupt ART, and the researcher Sarah Fidler makes it clear in the articles that this is not yet being considered. As some of the more accurate media coverage explains, even if HIV remains undetectable after an ART interruption long-term follow up is required because there have been several cases where viral load remained undetectable for months or–in the case of the Mississippi baby–years before rebounding.
A recent study that combined a therapeutic HIV vaccine with an HDAC inhibitor revealed some evidence of a slight decline the HIV reservoir, but there was no effect on viral load rebound when ART was interrupted. Participants in this study had not recently acquired HIV.
The bottom line is that it appears extremely unlikely that anyone participating in the RIVER trial will be cured, but the information learned is expected to make a contribution to the ongoing effort to develop a cure. Results are expected in 2018.
As has happened in the past, an effort is now underway to secure corrections to the Times and Telegraph articles.