The Controversy Behind The Tuberculosis Vaccine Study, Explained

Vaccines are incredible, but a new investigation has revealed serious shortcomings in the way a new booster was trialed. pixelaway/Shutterstock

For the last few months, various media outlets have been reporting that something rather untoward seems to have happened with regards to a new tuberculosis (TB) vaccine pioneered by Oxford University. The claims suggest that the results of the pre-clinical vaccine tests were misrepresented by the research team, and that the aim was to use those results to get funding for further trails.

This, of course, sounds extremely unethical. The university itself has said that three separate investigations into the research has cleared the academics behind it of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

The statement notes that the “new human vaccine candidate for tuberculosis… has been safely tested in more than 2,000 humans without any adverse effects.”

According to The BMJ, however, the results were not accurately represented in the final publication and they question whether human trials should have ever taken place. In response, the university condemned the investigation’s findings, stressing that “the time has come to stop the repeated repackaging of criticisms and allegations which independent expert analysis has demonstrated to be without foundation.”

Before we go into the details of all this, let’s get this straight right out of the gate: Vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives. With very few exceptions for certain individuals, vaccines are perfectly safe – and they certainly don’t have any link whatsoever to autism or any other such condition.

Now that we’ve got that out of our system, let’s go into the specifics. You can read The BMJ’s original investigation into the matter here, but we’ve distilled its key points down into this short explainer.

What was the study about?

According to the BMJ, the study, which began in 2009, involved testing out an improved vaccine against TB. Around 2,800 infants in South Africa took part, with about half getting the jab.

Vaccines for TB already exist – including the BCG variant that is given to infants with an increased risk of contracting TB. The purpose of this new trial was to investigate if a more effective vaccine program could be engineered – which is where the new MVA85A vaccine comes into play.

Technically, MVA85A was designed to be given to young children after the BCG vaccine, as a booster shot.

The families of the infants had to consent for the booster to be administered, and they were formally told that the inoculation had been tested in animals and, critically, was “shown to be safe and effective.”

The animal trails reportedly featured guinea pigs, cattle, monkeys, and mice, which implied that it worked without any dangerous side effects on a wide range of test subjects. Hence, why these new human trials were taking place.

Ultimately, the trail concluded that the booster had no discernible positive effect on the babies' immunization capacities.

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