By Lisa Reilly, Communications Director, U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP), Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Rockville, MD
In the fall of 2009, I coordinated the public announcement of the results of the Thai vaccine study—the largest-ever HIV vaccine trial, led by researchers from the U.S. Military HIV Research Program and conducted by the Thai Ministry of Public Health (MOPH).
We developed a phased announcement strategy to accommodate the three time zones our collaborators were in, which spanned 11 hours. A coordinated and centralized approach to media relations and stakeholder engagement played a critical role in reaching target audiences and mitigating potential issues. This strategy was agreed to months prior to learning the results.
Our initial announcement was made in Thailand on September 24th, 2009, an important Thai holiday and the anniversary of the trial’s start date. Thai researchers requested this date and all of the collaborators agreed that the participants should be informed first. The following day, we held a teleconference with a panel of scientists who discussed the results with members of the media. The study team also submitted a paper to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and planned to present the results at the AIDS Vaccine Conference in October, several weeks after the announcement.
Before the publication and presentation in October, we briefed several groups of HIV researchers about detailed trial data under confidentiality agreements. Some analyses were leaked to the press, and because we were under embargo, we could not address the questions raised before our article was published in the NEJM. In hindsight, the initial announcement to the volunteers should have been planned closer to the presentation and publication date to avoid this gap in public discussion of the full data.