Advantages and disadvantages of drawing attention to a study launch: “First South African-developed HIV vaccines begin testing in SA”

When the leadership of SAAVI 102/HVTN 073, a small Phase I vaccine study in South Africa, decided to organize a public launch for the study, their announcement attracted a lot of media attention. In general, Phase I trials do not seek much publicity (this trial would enroll only 36 participants). But there was something unique about the vaccine study: the candidate products were developed by local South African scientists. The study team decided to launch the trial publicly and invited high-profile speakers.

The launch received considerable, positive media coverage, especially as it coincided with the 2009 International AIDS Society Conference being held in Cape Town. It provided an important opportunity for the many stakeholders involved in the study to strengthen their connection to the study. Participants at the launch included government officials, researchers, leading advocates, and community stakeholders, as well as staff from the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI), partners, and sponsors—the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)—who were in town for the conference.

This type of public launch can have many benefits, but it also has potential drawbacks. Media attention can increase public pressure and heighten expectations for positive results from the trial—something that no study team can promise. Moreover, the larger and more prominent the event becomes, the more likely it is that stakeholders who were not invited will feel left out. In selecting a launch strategy, trial teams need to determine what is best for their studies, given the context, the timing, and other factors.

October 2nd, 2013