Resolution Statement – 28737-20 Imperial College London v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Imperial College London complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Only white people to be exposed to virus in 'challenge' vaccine trial” published on 21 October 2020.
2. The article reported that the world’s first “challenge” vaccine trial would be expected to start in the New Year, but that only “young white people” would take part. It said that volunteers would be deliberately exposed to the virus “to see how well the jab designed by Imperial College London works”. The article then went on to say that “the scientists behind the Imperial vaccine” said that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds would not be eligible to take part in the first instance because those groups have shown to be at higher risk from Covid-19. It quoted a named scientist who said that: “There is some very clear data that BAME people may be at higher risk of severe outcomes. We will start off with people who we believe are going to be at the lowest risk, and then gradually increase a greater diversity of individuals as the trial goes on”.
3. The article also appeared online in largely the same form, with the headline “World’s first Covid vaccine ‘challenge’ trial to take place in London in January”, published on 20 October 2020. It was largely the same as the print version, but the quote attributed to the named scientist was slightly different in that it said that: “Out approach is that we are not going to exclude BAME people absolutely from the trial, but we will start off with people who we believe are going to be at the lowest risk and then gradually increase diversity of individuals as the trial goes on”.
4. The complainant was the university which was carrying out the research reported on. It said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It said that it was not the case that the trial would only involve “young white people” or that people from ethnic minorities would be excluded. It said that instead, the trial would begin with people who were at the lowest risk, regardless of ethnicity, although the trial recognised that people from BAME backgrounds may be at a higher risk. It also said that the trial was not designed to “test how well the jab… works” as the vaccine would not be tested, and it was not the case that it was being carried out by “the scientists behind the Imperial vaccine”. The complainant also said that the name of the scientist quoted in the article had been misspelled.
5. The newspaper said that the article made clear that it was only in “the first instance” that people from BAME backgrounds would not be able to take part in the trial, and the quote from the named scientist set out that BAME people may be at a high risk of adverse outcomes. The online article also included a fuller quote from the scientist, setting out that the university would not exclude BAME people “absolutely” from the trial, but that it would begin with individuals at the “lowest risk”. It said that therefore, the article made clear that BAME people would not be entirely excluded from the trial. Nevertheless, it accepted that the print headline did not fully capture this position.
6. The newspaper said that although it may not literally be the same individuals who had developed the Imperial vaccine that were now working on the trial, it said that the trial was designed with the aim of aiding the vaccine and the teams were working towards the same goal. It did not accept that the article contained a significant inaccuracy on this point. However, it amended the article as a gesture of goodwill. The newspaper accepted that it was not the case that volunteers would have the vaccine tested on them as part of the trial, but said that this claim was based on a briefing of the study sent to journalists which described the challenge trials as involving “…a vaccine candidate that has proven to be safe in initial trials is given to a small number of health adult volunteers. It also said that a press conference about the trial referred to individuals being “inoculated” and a journalist was not corrected when he referred to the vaccine being used in a question in the press conference.
7. In response to these points, the newspaper offered to print the following correction:
“Following our 21 October article, "Only white people to be exposed to virus in ‘challenge’ vaccine trial", we wish to clarify that the study in question involves infecting participants with live Covid virus; they will not be vaccinated beforehand and the researchers have no plans to test the Imperial College Covid vaccine, as the article wrongly implied. Further, it will not be restricted to white people as the headline suggested. As the text made clear, the study will extend to individuals of other ethnicities when and if that is deemed safe. We are sorry for the confusion.”
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
9. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.
10. During IPSO’s investigation, the publication agreed to print the following wording in its correction and clarification column and as a footnote to the online article. It also agreed to post a tweet drawing attention to this correction:
Following our 21 October article, "Only white people to be exposed to virus in ‘challenge’ vaccine trial", we wish to clarify that the study in question involves infecting participants with live Covid virus; they will not be vaccinated beforehand and the researchers have no plans to test the Imperial College Covid vaccine, as the article wrongly stated. Further, it will not be restricted to white people as the headline suggestion. Contrary to the article’s suggestion, the study will be open to other ethnicities, with diversity likely to increase as the trial advances. We are sorry for the inaccuracies and for not correcting them promptly.
11. The complainant said that this would resolve its complaint.
12. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.