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MEDICINE AND PEOPLE OF COLOR
Unlikely mix -- Race, biology and drugs
Troy Duster   Monday, March 17, 2003

      When the biotech company VaxGen released the results of its long-
promised AIDS vaccine trials last month, the only conclusion that could be
drawn from the large-scale study was that the vaccine had no significant
effect. Of the more than 5,300 volunteers, 5.7 percent of those who received
the vaccine became infected with HIV, but an eerily similar 5.8 per cent of
those who received a placebo also became infected.

      Attempting to rescue a silver lining from this dark cloud, the company
tried to latch onto a "finding" even thinner than the lining. Of the 314
African Americans in the sample, a total of 13 had HIV infections, including
four women who received placebos. News media around the country picked up the
spontaneously revised VaxGen message and broadcast loudly that blacks had a "78
percent protection" from this vaccine. Even more problematic, four Asian
Americans were infected, a few more were not -- and there was a suggestion that
the vaccine might work on people of color.

      As any statistician will testify, the number of African Americans and
Asians is so small that one can have no confidence in these "findings." But
that is precisely where the story starts to get interesting. To understand why,

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