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VaxGen's AidsVax: message board sizzles as speculations yield to vaccine facts

The failure of AidsVax to prevent infection with HIV - in clinical trial results published in 2003 - triggered an intense debate about the controversial product and its manufacturer, VaxGen Inc of Brisbane, California. Mail to this website, maintained by Brian Deer, shows that existing material on a VaxGen-AidsVax index is read by significant numbers. This page seeks to further inform the discussion


From August 1999, the premier open-access discussion about VaxGen and AidsVax raged on the Yahoo Finance VXGN message board. Server logs measuring hits from message boards to briandeer.com suggest that as many people may have read the Yahoo Finance VXGN board as all equivalent forums on the company combined. Posters, anonymized behind IDs such as newt_eye, Blknite777 and bluehotel (critics of the company) and plmr2000, wallstreet13 and rumpelstiltskin70 (advocates for the stock), often quarreled bitterly about everything from the motives of VaxGen executives to hidden meanings of individual price movements.

Many of the exchanges will have bored even the most financially-engaged lurkers, but in the wake of the announcement of VaxGen's results on February 24 2003, complete with unexpected claims about ethnic groups, the quality of messages took off.


Among a number of posters who got serious with the statistics in the week after the results announcement, newt_eye scored most recommendations with this:

This post has 9 recommendations
Issues presented by the company
by: newt_eye 03/01/03 01:14 am
Msg: 26575

The issues have grown.
It started with the failure. Not a modest falling short. Not 28% efficacy instead of 30% efficacy.
Efficacy that was not statistically different from zero.
A CI of -23% to 24%; efficacy 3.8% with p=0.76.
p=0.76 means its more likely that this difference between vaccine and control is due to random fluctuation than to a real difference.
Utter and complete failure in the overall population.
The new issue is credibility. It is the mind-boggling tap dance they've done to claim huge success in the black population in spite of only 13 total infections and in spite of their failure to properly correct the p value.
In blacks, the significance evaporates with correction.
So, add in the Asians. There's absolutely no biological reason to create the artificial subgroup of Africans and Asians, but do it and you get significance. This is going to the well again and again until you can fish up some data that looks better than the trial as a whole.
The market isn't buying this. The share selloff continues and I think it's because these guys have spun and spun and spun this story and zero efficacy is overwhelming. "It works in chimps," is no longer believable as a rationale for working in humans. Now it's "It works in non-white minorities" (come on give us all a break Don, what the hell kind of subset is "non-white minorities?"). So, working in "non-white minorities is supposed to be the foot in the door that is the big breakthrough? They had to analyze 9 subsets to get one that looked OK. They couldn't apply the correction needed to make the p value right. Now they want you to think that this is the start of a big success?
Did you ever wonder if they found a subset where the vaccine seemed to increase infection? You didn't see all the subsets so how would you know? Would they have mentioned that as part of the "bad news" if they'd come across a subset with a negative efficacy?
The market isn't buying the spin this time. The market doesn't trust "it works in non-white minorities" because they were burned by "it works in chimps".

Among the replies came this, from the evidently committed vaxgen_what_the_f:

This post has 5 recommendations
newt, blacks, asians, bogus grouping
by: vaxg_what_the_f 03/01/03 10:34 am
Msg: 26585

Newt, good points that vaxg's lame paint job makes several incorrect and stupid scientific assumptions.
As you point out they had to lump blacks and asians together to make the subsetting look even a little plausible. The problem is that there is no scientific basis to lump blacks with asians, none. Are Asians more similar to blacks than to whites or "hispanics"? No!!!!
Skin color is the most superficial of differences and many caucasoids in India, the middle east, italy, greece, Northern Africa, Spain etc. are a lot darker than say, Northern Chinese. To any biologist the concept of human "races" is dubious, modern homo sapiens recently went through several genetic bottlenecks (say 200 kiloyears ago) followed by a very rapid population expansion mostly in the 20th century. Therefore, modern humans everywhere are much more closely related to each other than most species including dogs, cats, and chimpanzees, the latter of which is actually an old, highly differentiated species. This is common knowledge backed up by a lot of recent genetic population studies.
That blacks and asians are "minorities" is an accident of history, geography, and perspective. Blacks are not "minorities" in Africa, Asians are not "minorities" in Asia, Duh!!!! Their "minority" status has nothing to do per se with any biological reason why they should
respond to an aids vaccine.
Vaxgen to try and subset and paint their results has resorted to meaningless groupings with no biological basis.We now have chimpanzees, blacks, and asians versus whites, hispanics, and monkeys. There is no reason to group whites, hispanics, and monkeys together either.
These guys are desperate and, in my opinion, have taken statistical noise and attempted to draw conclusions that have no scientific underpinnings whatsoever. It isn't working as the stock price slide shows. You say that they have a credibility problem, not quite, they have no credibility after this in the scientific community. The goose is cooked, stick a fork in it because it is done. IMHO

Here's another take on the stats from a poster boasting a similarly long handle, what_is_going_on_999:

This post has 4 recommendations
Re: statisticians comments
by: what_is_going_on_999 02/28/03 03:52 am
Msg: 26258

Have you all noticed that the public is feed a limited subset of data here?
Vaxgen wants you to believe the hypothesis that using their statistics the subgroup analysis showed efficacy in blacks and asians. How about other subgroup analysis? Have you seen any analysis by gender? or other ethnical minorities? Why do we see the hispanic group only in the context of the white group?
Could it be that the same statistical analysis would show that in other subgroups the vaccine recepients have a statiscally significant higher risk of infection? Of course the proper answer in this case would be that the numbers are to low to make any statements, but that would be kind of difficult if you want to use simillar low number to make positive statements.
Also Vaxgen now wants you to believe that protection in blacks and asians is due to higher antibody titers? Need I remind you about a statement made in the original press release?
"In addition to the results in those receiving three doses, the reduction in infection in individuals who received at least one dose of vaccine or placebo were similar and also statistically significant. This analysis is known as "intent-to-treat"."
Can you understand what this says? It says that there is statistically significant protection in blacks and asians who only received one dose of vaccine. If you have any understanding of immunology you know that a singel dose of a subjunit vaccine in alum hardly induces a whopping antibody response.
Guess this statment is in contradiction to the statment about correlation with high titers?
Also look at the asian subgroup. Placebo 2/20 equals 10% infection.
Vaccinees 2/53 equals 3.9% infection. Thus a protection of 61%. Do you realize that the whole observed protection hinges on the second infected placebo recepient? This is a clinical trial of 1 patient?
Think about it what were your infection rates in placebos? either 5% or 10% you can't have 1.3 infections in 20 placebos.
Boy Vaxgen is really glad this one guy didn't use a condom that night ..... Otherwise the asian subgroup would have been a bust. So how muthch money do you want to wage on the Thai trial?

Some posts in the week after the announcement took the opportunity to question VaxGen's longterm prospects, including this from iolani_k:

This post has 4 recommendations
Vaxgen is out of options at this point.
by: iolani_k 02/28/03 12:04 pm
Msg: 26418

THink about it for a minute. IF the company has lost the gov't contract for the smallpox vaccine and with the recent failure of aidsvax, what does the company have going for itself. I mean, really, think about it. Look how much capital the company has left.
Look at the 2002 report and the amount of cash burn they went thru in the 4th qtr. DO you really think this company has the capital to conduct anything in another clinical trial???
As many others have said throughout on this board, vaxgen lacks the capital to fund additional studies let alone a marketing launch if they ever got a product approved(Which will never happen anyway. And how do you think they would be able to raise capital to begin with??
Issuing more shares of course! and do you think this will drive the price up? Think about it carefully for a minute and ask yourself:
Does the company have something concrete that's going to bring the stock price back up to $6-9???
I think any half intelligent entity can deduce that htis company ahs nothing going for it. It is strapped for cash, it has no successful products coming to market in the near future and it is trying from a PR standpoint to pour sugar over their failed trials. Do you really think that there is potential for your investment here? If so, then buy, buy, buy. But you know that if massive buying ever started, there would be an increase in the short float again. Do you think the new short float is done by new investors? I'll let you in on a secret, it's the same people who have been shorting this stock since day 1.
Cut your losses and move on to anotehr target. THis company is not for longs. If you want a better value for biotech, Chiron, genentech are much safer bets.


Although not the most frequent or knowledgeable poster, some mentions were reserved for bluehotel, whose contributions occasionally resurfaced from deep within the board. Here's a find by hot_day_comin:

This post has 5 recommendations
Haunting message from the past
by: hot_day_comin 02/25/03 12:00 am
Msg: 24593

Over 3 years ago.. How true it was and still is:

Getting desperate
by: bluehotel 02/09/00 02:18 pm
Msg: 291
Trader: your efforts to pump this demonstrably useless product are getting a bit sad. As I've said before, it is possible that US and international agencies will get together with Vaxgen to dump a dud vaccine in the Third World, for reasons of empire and greed, but I wouldn't put money on it because (a) it's a bad risk and (b) it's immoral.

He may also have thought he was witty.

This post has 4 recommendations
CORRECTION FROM VXGN
by: bluehotel 02/24/03 02:19 pm
Msg: 24073

NEWS RELEASE - CORRECTION

A press notice issued at 12am ET Monday February 24 2003, contained an error.
The notice made reference to volunteers who were "black" and "Asian".
Please disregard these subgroups.
The notice should have referred to "Virgos" and "blue-eyed females <26".
Rpt, delete "black" and insert "Virgos", delete "Asians" and insert "blue-eyed females <26".
In these subgroups, AidsVax B/B showed statistically significant efficacy. Definitely.
This news release contains forward-looking statements and may be wholly false and/or misleading. Neither VaxGen nor its officers accepts any responsibility for anything


Among the most regular posters for the "longs" (people who expected VaxGen's stock to rise)was plmr2000. This message was a reply to regular contributor Blknite777, and may have caught the mood among the longs on the weekend after February 24:

Re: Reduces Viral Load?
by: plmr2000 Long-Term Sentiment: Strong Buy 03/02/03 01:21 am
Msg: 26676

Well Blachee Im Guessing Monday will Be a Blood bath .. I Hope .. Then Ill Jump In .. Wanna Bet I Make Good Money Here ??? AGAIN ??? LOL ... You Remain My Perfect Empty Vessel ..Knows All Tells All .. Prophits NOT At ALL LOL !!! Grow a Sack Blachee And Come Play with The Men !!!

Other longs struck a more sober note during the week, including webbroker.

This post has 8 recommendations
==== keep your VXGN ; news soon =======
by: webbroker Long-Term Sentiment: Strong Buy 02/28/03 02:28 pm
Msg: 26479

if you're deperate for good news...one is coming out soon!
just keep your VXGN shares for next 48 hours business days....just be patient :)
Happy investing folks!


Before the results were announced, most posts were optimistic - sometimes attempting to predict the future from material already in the public domain. This highly recommended contribution, from mike148535, is an example:

This post has 7 recommendations
Does anyone read SEC docs ?
by: mike148535 Long-Term Sentiment: Strong Buy 02/13/03 02:42 pm
Msg: 21409

Why would Vaxgen hire some big wig from Pasteur in Feb. if they didn't know that the data was going to be positive. Vaxgen has been saying time and time again that they are preparing for the big bang.
They have secured a joint venture in land and and large scale processing to take place in Korea. They have hired employee upon employee of knowledgable individuals from pharma co's and state that that is the major reason for their SGA costs increasing. How much more do they have to say to convince the public that this is just waiting for the magic day when the results will be announced.
Stop reading these message boards and look at the edgar filings.
Educate yourselves!
Let's all hope for the best for the world.

Such confidence may have sprung from many sources, but one key provider for the longs was "investment analyst" (and critic of this website) Porter Stansberry. Frequent poster rumpelstiltskin70 was among his admirers.

Re: Porter's fans? Newt, Enough Already
by: rumpelstiltskin70 02/14/03 10:40 pm
Msg: 21606

Newt
Do you subscribe to Porter Stansberry's Newsletter? I do. I think I get my moneys worth. I think that he and
Lashmet give me enough information such that I can do my own due diligence and make decisions. Lashmet is in charge of a yearly service called Diligence that garners 5K a year. I don't take all of their recs. They have NEVER, EVER, indicated that VaxGen is the type of stock you should plunge on. They always give the usual caveats. But they will tell us unabashedly that if this sucker hits, we're going to make very good money. They've been all over this stock when it was tanking to five, and up to the 20's. Years. Say what you will, and they may turn out to be wrong on this one, but VaxGen is certainly no pump and dump for these guys.

But, in case anybody thinks that most messages were quite so erudite, laidbackmac brings us back to earth.

This post has 5 recommendations
Re: Rowdyrim
by: laidbackmac 02/15/03 12:01 am
Msg: 21609

Haha...yup...you're a jackass...


By the time lawyers initiated securities fraud suits against the company in March 2003, many of the more conspicuous longs on the board had gone silent. Regular contributor wallstreet13, however, followed years of ferocious abuse of those who had correctly advised him of VaxGen's prospects, with remorse that was practically sobbed:

Re: plmr alert!
by: wallstreet13 (M/your neigborhood) 03/18/03 07:25 am
Msg: 28804

Hey Bronz,
I'm still hurting buddy.
I squeezed a small overall profit out of this deal, but saw tons of paper profits go up in smoke in a matter of time related to what a normal heart attack takes kill someone. The results ripped my heart out.
At one time I thought I knew who the bad guys were, but now I am not so sure.
The class action is a poor attempt to remedy matters. It's based on jealously and hate. And even if it wins there is no money, or deep pockets to dip into from the company.
The only hope, as I see it, is to link the inside selling to insider trading. If the law suit can prove this, then there will be a chance to recover some of the losses.
I feel sick thinking about my "strong buys" at $18. And I am upset for pulling an order to sell everything at $19 in this Texas stakes poker match.
The Porter character was incredulous, but most of all I'm sick over the fact there is a nasty bug out there that will still kill millions in the years ahead.
I only hope the SEC can find and punish the short people involved in insider trading.



More than 21,500 messages were posted on the Yahoo Finance VXGN board between August 2 1999 and February 24 2003, and many thousands more since. But why? And, as emeraldeyz13 points out, who cares anyway?

This post has 5 recommendations
What I Really Want to Know
by: emeraldeyz13 02/14/03 11:26 am
Msg: 21518

Why does anyone give a flying xxx what I or anyone else invests in?
I could care less what anyone else does with their money. It is none of my business, except when the means and intentions of certain people have an illegal effect on the stock price. I'm not accusing anyone because I have no concrete proof, but I find it strange that for those on this board that claim to "only try to educate and warn the longs, and they are only here because of their concern for us and their great fascination with this stock and its investors, etc." (paraphased), they resort to name-calling and attempt-at-humiliation tactics. I have very little invested and, granted, I am not a scientist, but I will sit it out and wait for the actual results to come in. I am comfortable with my loss if it comes to that and will be very happy if results are good -- not only for the comparatively small amount I will gain, but for the possibility that some lives may be saved.
Again, it really doesn't matter to me if some of you think I am a "Knucklehead" or not. I do not intend to gloat, nor have I ever, nor will I blame anyone in the other case. I just wish everyone would mind their own business and quit all the name-calling, etc. I had hopes that this board was to discuss the matter with civility and for objective discussion, but there is so much stuff to wade through to find just regular folks with no agenda that it's really getting rather tiresome. There, I've said my piece.
LIVE AND LET LIVE!
Peace and luck to all (whichever position you are in),


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