Remember when we were told that the administration of Donald J. Trump posed a pernicious threat to science and medicine? In an attempt to sharpshoot Trump’s most famous scientific claim, one of the world’s leading medical journals just blew off its own foot.
What other possible explanation can there be for the catastrophic failure of The Lancet’s thunderously hyped anti-hydroxychloroquine article, which this week was retracted after it was revealed to be unsubstantiated, if not a full-on hoax?
On May 22, the hugely influential medical journal published an article on the most talked-about drug of the coronavirus pandemic. In the midst of a public-health crisis, when one particular treatment is receiving inordinate attention, it is critically important for The Lancet and other medical journals to guide us with facts rather than add to the political noise. Lives were, and are, on the line.
Doctors who had some anecdotal evidence, but no clinical proof, that hydroxychloroquine might be part of an effective treatment for COVID-19 sufferers were desperate to learn whether the drug works, doesn’t work, or is downright harmful to such patients. The Lancet in effect constructed a flashing red neon stop sign warning the medical profession that the drug was worse than useless. This matters.
The New York Times and virtually every other media outlet took the study at face value; the Times ran the alarming headline, “Malaria Drug Taken by Trump Is Tied to Increased Risk of Heart Problems and Death in New Study.” The Washington Post ran this headline: “Antimalarial drug touted by President Trump is linked to increased risk of death in coronavirus patients, study says.” The World Health Organization and several other health organizations halted clinical trials of HCQ and several national governments altered policy for the same reason.
And all of this happened because the Lancet published a peer-reviewed “observational study” that had more red flags than May Day. Its shoddy, embarrassing, instantly debunked “study” comes from a strange source that not only does not have a gold-standard reputation in the medical-research field but looks highly dubious. What good is The Lancet if it’s going to publish any fool thing that comes across its desk? In publishing this “study,” The Lancet acted about as responsibly as the New York Times would have been if it published a story saying, “Government chemicals in the water are turning the frogs gay, says expert observer.”
The Lancet article was based on the claims of a tiny, previously obscure Chicago-area firm called Surgisphere, founded by Dr. Sapan Desai, who has been named in three medical malpractice suits unrelated to the latest controversy and also left his hospital job in February. Desai has said Surgisphere has eleven employees. As of last week, the firm had six employees listed on LinkedIn, and as the Guardian reported, these employees included a sci-fi writer and an “adult model.” Great: The world’s most important medical study is coming to you from Stephen King and a pinup girl. Among the other tasty nuggets unearthed by the Guardian’s investigation were that, until a few days ago, the “get in touch” link on Surgisphere’s homepage sent users to a template for a cryptocurrency website.
The Lancet gave its imprimatur to a shadowy group, which before May had never published in any peer-reviewed journal, has almost no past Internet history, and most of whose employees appear to have joined the firm just this year. It apparently did not wonder how a tiny company beat all of its more established competitors and managed, at an astonishing speed, to carry out a massive clinical trial involving 96,000 patients and 1,200 hospitals around the world. The study didn’t even identify which hospitals it supposedly got data from.
Where the underlying information is, nobody knows, because Surgisphere won’t tell us. It claimed, for instance, to have collected detailed health records from more than 4,000 patients from hospitals in Africa, though other professionals in the field say it’s especially difficult to get good data from that continent.
“This is a pretty important topic. Can we see the details behind these data please?” is a question you would ask. The Lancet didn’t. It just said, “Looks good to us, fellas!” And somebody hit ‘publish.’ Retracting the article on Thursday, The Lancet sheepishly told us, “Our independent peer reviewers informed us that Surgisphere would not transfer the full dataset, client contracts, and the full ISO audit report to their servers for analysis as such transfer would violate client agreements and confidentiality requirements.” We can’t show you our data because it’s a secret? The Lancet went along with this? “We can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources,” the journal added, raising the question of why it vouched for this unseen data in the first place. Surgisphere’s only other study published in a peer-reviewed journal, another COVID-19 paper published May 1 in the New England Journal of Medicine, was also retracted this week.
The two doctors who co-signed the study with Surgisphere’s Desai essentially shrugged and said, Hey, this is what they told us. Even now the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, is blasé about bungling a study about the most-discussed treatment for the worst public-health crisis in a century. He responded to a tweet saying there should be consequences for those who perpetuated this shambolic work by saying meekly, “Lessons not consequences I hope.”
I can’t think of any explanation for why The Lancet would make such a catastrophic mistake except that it was reading the study through the political equivalent of beer goggles. When you’re fired up with righteous rage about Donald Trump, and a paper comes across your desk that supports your priors about his being a dangerous ignoramus, you are capable of overlooking the most egregious, spectacular flaws. What The Lancet published is looking more and more like fiction.
The Lancet’s revulsion toward all things Trump is undisguised; last month it took the highly unusual step of publishing a blatantly political editorial calling for Trump’s ouster. This follows the politicizing of its pages for the purpose of damaging the reputation of the previous Republican president, George W. Bush: Its 2006 survey estimating the Iraq War led to some 650,000 excess deaths was widely questioned, including by the government of Iraq itself, whose spokesman said the study had no basis in reality. Leading experts in the scientific and medical communities are supposed to be rigorous thinkers. The Lancet episode is damning evidence that some of them, at the very highest levels, are allowing themselves to be steered by their political passions rather than by their reason.