Reading this exhaustive account of the quest to develop a vaccine against AIDS, I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. It's not as if Jon Cohen, a veteran writer for Science magazine and a darling of the AIDS establishment, hasn't assembled a thoroughly gripping detective mystery, documenting all the twists and turns HIV science has taken over the last 16 years.
But every good detective story needs a denouement, and here Cohen can't deliver the goods. We still have no HIV vaccine, despite the untold billions of dollars and great scientific minds directed toward developing one.
For readers who question the assumptions driving the vaccine initiative, Cohen's tract will only serve to confirm the futility of this massive effort, which has seen thousands of people injected with experimental vaccines that seem to produce strong immune responses against the virus but don't appear to offer any protection against AIDS itself.
It would help researchers if HIV-1 (the virus said to cause AIDS in humans) did something tangible to any other species. But even our closest relative, the chimpanzee -- which shares 99.5 per cent of our genetic makeup -- resists this killer.
So do some people who seem to be able to fight off the virus with potent immune responses, developing neither AIDS nor the telltale antibodies that normally signify a "positive" HIV test. To mainstream researchers, these people offer a natural blueprint upon which to model a vaccine.
But that's assuming the virus is the only factor involved. Cohen ignores the real possibility that other, possibly undetected chronic infections -- tuberculosis, syphilis and, in Africa, other endemic infections -- may also be on-board, bugging the immune system and allowing the virus out of its shell.
While he is quick to criticize the current HIV-based vaccine project, the failure to apply an equally massive research effort to investigate these other possible co-factors may well end up as the real tragedy here.