Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO

June 5, 2020

We’re going to have to add another new word to our vocabulary list for 2020.  By now we all know what “unprecedented” means.  It’s likely to be the word of the year.  Most of us also have a good sense of what ‘systemic’ means as well, it’s getting used so often in novel ways; this week systemic is linked with the word ‘oppression’ but last week it was just as strongly linked with the word ‘symptoms.’  And ‘novel’, we all know that word too well, and we aren’t talking about books of fiction.

The new word to add to our 2020 vocabulary list is ‘retract’ as in retraction.

The basic definition of retraction:  the action of drawing something back or back in. As in: “prey are grasped between the jaws upon tongue retraction.”

But now we are looking at a very specific form of retraction: “a withdrawal of a statement, accusation, or undertaking.” Or in this case the retraction of a peer reviewed scientific paper.  Actually in this case we are talking plural, as in papers.

Here’s a the word used in a phrase from a June 4 press release from ‘RetractionWatch’

“Two days after issuing expressions of concern about controversial papers on Covid-19, The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine have retracted the articles because a number of the authors were not granted access to the underlying data.”[i]

A longer quote from the NY Times puts the meaning of ‘retract’ in a fuller context and gives some magnitude to why this is relevant:

“The reports, published in two leading journals, were retracted after authors could not verify an enormous database of medical records. Two prominent studies on the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine that used the same dataset from a company called Surgisphere were retracted on Thursday. The studies, published in renowned scientific journals, produced astounding results and altered the course of research into the coronavirus pandemic.

“One undercut President Trump’s claim that certain antimalarial drugs cure Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, concluding that the medications in fact were dangerous to patients. The other found that some blood pressure drugs did not increase the risk of Covid-19 and might even be protective.

“Both studies were led by a professor at Harvard, and both depended on a huge international database of patient medical records that few experts had ever heard of. But on Thursday, the studies were retracted by the scientific journals in which they had appeared, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, because the authors could not verify the data on which the results depended.

The retractions may breathe new life into the antimalarial drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, relentlessly promoted by Mr. Trump as a remedy for Covid-19 despite a lack of evidence. On Wednesday, after the journals noted concerns about the studies, the World Health Organization announced that it would resume trials of the medications.

“But the retractions also raise troubling questions about the state of scientific research as the pandemic spreads. Thousands of papers are being rushed to online sites and journals with little or no peer review, and critics fear long-held standards of even the most discerning journals are eroding as they face pressure to rapidly vet and disseminate new scientific reports.” [ii]

Given that over the last few weeks, I have cited both of these studies and assumed that the reported findings were valid, it seems important to bring this matter up with some urgency.  Seeing scientific opinions change over time is not new but to see two major papers retracted from major journals so shortly after publication is to use one of our new words, unprecedented.  It probably also says something about a systemic change in our appreciation of truth, but I’m not sure exactly what exactly at this point.

Let’s take a moment to look up those two papers so that we can delete their conclusions from our working knowledge.  

The most recent of the two papers retracted was “Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis.” This is the paper with the impossibly large cohort of patients that compared outcomes of those taking hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine with or without Zithromax-like antibiotics and suggested that these drugs significantly worsened outcomes.[iii] I wrote about this: https://drjacobschor.wordpress.com/2020/05/29/barking-up-the-wrong-tree/

[I should also confess that in the original draft I posted I made several mistakes of my own, confusing and mislabeling a photo of the researcher behind this research, forcing me to make a ‘retraction’ of my own. I did double check that number, 96 thousand patients several times with the original PDF, but who was I to doubt the Lancet?]

The earlier paper was the one titled as “Cardiovascular Disease, Drug Therapy, and Mortality in Covid-19” that we had thought had silenced debate about whether ACE inhibitor drugs were useful or dangerous in treating Covid-19 infections. [iv]  I wrote about this in a piece we called, “Falsehood Flies”:  https://drjacobschor.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/falsehood-flies/#more-2554

The irony of that title does not escape me now.  But perhaps even more ironic is that Desai Sapan, whose company Surgisphere supplied the research group with what now seems to be the questionable data used in both studies, is the author of two prior papers on research misconduct. [v]

Thus, for the moment there are many things that we are no longer sure about. but I suppose there isn’t anything novel about that, ‘novel’ being an old term for ‘new’ as in never seen before..  Just for the sake of transparency, I thought it best to admit it.

[i]  https://retractionwatch.com/2020/06/04/lancet-retracts-controversial-hydroxychloroquine-study/

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/health/coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine.html

Rabin RC, Gabler E. Roni NYT. June 4, 2020.

[iii] Mehra MR, et al. Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis. Lancet. 2020. PMID: 32450107

[iv] Mehra MR, et al. Cardiovascular Disease, Drug Therapy, and Mortality in Covid-19. N Engl J Med. 2020. PMID: 32356626

[v] https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/931792