Fake news about HIV cures gives false hope to those living with HIV and even threatens to reverse some of the good work currently being done in the battle against the virus.
When there are reports of possible HIV cures, most people think of an immediate solution without clearly understanding the journey of medication from lab to shelf.
This week, Israeli company Zion Medical released a press statement claiming to have found a “potential” cure for HIV using the drug called Gammora after what it said was a 10-week trial of the drug. When Bhekisisa asked to see the peer-reviewed research to back up the claims, the drug company said a paper “was currently in the works”.
When bad science makes the headlines or Twitter, there are real consequences.
One tweet announcing Zion Medical’s statement by a popular parody account was re-tweeted 4 000 times and liked by more than 6 000 Twitter users.
A long debate followed after this, mostly dominated by messages congratulating the company on finding the “cure”.
Statements like “Relief to those infected. They will get cured” appeared soon after.
We know that when, for instance, healers falsely claim to be able to cure HIV, people who believe this may stop taking antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome tracked about 400 patients in rural Tanzania who fell for an HIV cure hoax. Of those who actually sought out the local healer at the centre of this scam, ARV adherence dropped significantly albeit for a short time.
Meanwhile, the firm’s statement claimed that most — not all — of nine patients who received the drug saw “a significant reduction of the viral load of up to 90%” within the first four weeks.
Viral load is the amount of HIV in your blood. This kind of reduction is not new and has been described with many antiretroviral (ARV) medications, even older combinations as described in this 1997 letter published in the journal Nature.
We already know that taking commonly available antiretroviral (ARV) medication correctly every day can lower a person’s viral load to very low levels and when this happens, that’s called viral suppression.
Zion Medical’s “trial” was carried out at Dr Ronald Bata Memorial Hospital in Entebbe, Uganda, the company says in its release. There is no such trial registered in Entebbe, according to a search of the site ClinicalTrials.gov. One of the largest databases of its kind, the site is compiled by the US government’s National Library of Medicine based on information provided by the organisations and institutions that sponsor and sponsor and implement studies.
Even a cursory glance through the supposed methodology of the study is worrying. The statement seems to describe a study done in two, short parts several weeks apart and neglects to mention how many people participated in total in the experiment, also known as a sample size. Knowing how many people are part of a study — and how they were selected — offers essential clues to readers and scientists about how much we should trust a study’s results.
Questions do not end there.
The statement goes on to describe how some patients were given the common ARV Aluvia while others received Aluvia and Zion’s experimental drug twice a week.
Aluvia itself is a combination of two ARVs, lopinavir and ritonavir. HIV treatment is always prescribed as a course of three drugs to help prevent resistance. It is important to note that prescribing Aluvia monotherapy, in other words, so use as a single drug — and not in combination with at least two other ARVs — is not an appropriate standard of care.
No safety data were reported so one can also not conclude that Zion Medical’s proposed treatment is safe and well-tolerated.