Amid concern about data flaws, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) retracted reports discrediting off-label drugs being used to treat and prevent COVID-19.
On June 4, 2020, The Lancet pulled a study it published stating hydroxychloroquine (HCQ)— a possible COVID-19 treatment touted by President Trump—and another anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, were ineffective treatments for COVID-19 and increased the risk for heart problems and death. Hours later, NEJM retracted a study discrediting a blood pressure medication being used for COVID-19 treatment. The studies were done by the same company, Surgisphere, and used retrospective data, not data from a randomized, controlled study.
Outside experts raised red flags in the Lancet study when they noticed inconsistencies in the data. Surgisphere failed to provide its raw data for peer review, stating it was prohibited from doing so by contractual obligations.
Politics in Medical Science
HCQ is a generic and inexpensive drug that has been safely used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases such as lupus.
The drug has been in the spotlight since President Trump tweeted March 21 that for COVID-19, HCQ and the antibiotic Azithromycin, “have a real chance to be one for the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” On May 18, Trump said he was taking the drug to protect himself from the getting the disease and his physician stated the benefit outweighed the risk.
Since then, there have been numerous media reports discrediting the drug. Several states, such as Michigan, threatened civil action against physicians who prescribed the drug for a use other than its approved purpose. Such use is known as “off label” and is a practice widely accepted by physicians.
Coverage by the media has been “consistently biased,” wrote Connor Harris in the City Journal, June 5, 2020. Harris notes there is evidence in small data sets that HCQ does show promise in treating COVID-19 in its early stages but “has gone almost entirely ignored by most media outlets.” Harris states while research on the drug’s efficacy and risks needs to be continued, “what is not warranted “is portrayal of HCQ as deadly.”
The retractions by medical journals is equally alarming, says Marilyn Singleton, M.D., J.D. and past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.
“The Lancet debacle illustrates the danger of injecting politics into medical science,” Singleton told Health Care News. “Some media outlets perversely reported with glee that “Trump’s drug” was useless. We all should be disappointed that multiple reports of clinical successes were not validated in a well-publicized study.”
Getting information to the public about a previously unknown virus and one that has upended lives is key, Singleton says.
“Dodgy research methods neither advance our knowledge of COVID-19 nor give us confidence in the guidelines from the experts,” Singleton said.
Pandemic Book Nixed
Medical journals and media outlets are not the only institutions under fire for trying to control the discussion around COVID-19. The same week of the retractions, Elon Musk called out Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for rejecting a book questioning the severity of the pandemic.
Author and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson tweeted that Kindle Direct Publishing would not make his book, “Unreported Truths about Covid-19 and Lockdowns,” available on its platform. After the tweets, Kindle announced the book would be available.
Singleton says it is important to let the public judge content.
“While social media may not be the best sources for reliable information, these platforms helped expose the bogus study,” Singleton said. “We should all take heed: to paraphrase Jeremy Bentham, the first target of censorship is rarely the last.”
AnneMarie Schieber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of Health Care News.