This post by IRMA’s Jim Pickett first appeared on the blog of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance.


The VOICE results are extremely important to the field of new prevention technology research. I hope current/future/much-needed discussions about VOICE don’t get drowned out by the HYPE (yes, all caps HYPE) surrounding the “baby cure” story which has dominated coverage out of CROI so far.

If there is one VOICE lesson to focus on, it is adherence. Or in this case, the upsetting lack thereof. It is absolutely important to fully understand why so many of the women in the trial didn’t apply the gel, or take the pill. And it is critically important for scientists to develop things people actually WANT to use, and DESIRE. Perhaps a daily gel, or a daily pill, is simply not desirable for a lot of folks. Makes sense to me.

But here’s the rub. The field can’t move forward with product development when people don’t actually test-drive the product being investigated. Products can’t be improved without data from people who actually used the product. Sure, a daily gel or a daily pill may not be everyone’s idea of a good time… but the only way those ideas get translated from the clunky Model T Ford to a slick 2013 BMW is through a long, iterative process. Which requires trial participants to APPLY THE GEL and/or TAKE THE PILL.

I get that people join trials for all kinds of reasons, and that for many; it is their only access to healthcare. So, they may have no interest in actually participating in test driving anything, but are very excited about regular HIV and STD screening, counseling, access to condoms and lube, referrals to other services, etc. Can’t be mad at them for wanting those things. Right?

It’s a crime, really, or at the very least an outrage, that clinical trials end up being the only healthcare access point for too many folks. That needs to be addressed, on its own.

But…we simply can’t afford enrolling thousands of people into complicated and costly clinical trials to have them just forgo what they SIGNED UP to do. Let’s be brutally honest here, joining a trial to get health screenings and condoms is great for the individual – but it does NADA, NOTHING, NOOTCH for the community/communities fighting HIV who are desperate for new tools to prevent HIV.

Being in a clinical trial is a commitment to following the protocol as best as possible, and being honest when unable. Clinical trial participation necessitates a strong sense of altruism, a desire to help answer big questions for whole populations. I think it is unfair to everyone, especially highly impacted communities where HIV rates are soaring, and where the crisis is anything but over, for trial participants to sign informed consents and derive individual benefits from trials without fully engaging in the study protocols that would allow for potential population benefits.

There are not unlimited resources. In fact, they are shrinking (Hello Sequester!) We can’t continue to fund expensive, resource-intensive, multi-year trials in which most people only SAY they test drove the product.

Jim Pickett is the Chair of the International Rectal Microbicide Advocates (IRMA). This blogpost is part of our ongoing coverage of the 2013 Conference on Retroviruses & Opportunistic Infections (CROI). To read more perspective and analysis on the VOICE results at CROI, click here.

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