It has been almost a year since we first heard of the COVID-19 outbreak. As the novel virus spread around the world and researchers rushed to study it, scientific papers began to be produced with remarkable speed. Due to the urgency of the situation, a large number of these were published in preprint journals, skipping the usual process of peer review in which other scientists have a chance to critique the work prior to publication.
This proved to be a double edged sword. While this fundamental shift in the way science is carried out allowed our knowledge of the virus to expand rapidly, it also led to a number of flawed publications that had to be retracted.
Scientific consensus shifts constantly based on new evidence as it emerges, and it is expected that some studies will produce results that are later contradicted by the overwhelming weight of evidence. Retraction, however, is when a paper is removed from a journal by either the editor or the authors. It effectively means that the results presented are so flawed that they should not be taken into consideration by the scientific community. What follows are just some of the papers concerning COVID-19 that were later forced to be retracted.
A paper published in India and entitled ”Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag” claimed to have found genetic similarities between Sars-CoV-2 and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Considering the conspiratorial wording of the paper, the authors seemed to be suggesting that the virus had been engineered by humans. The scientific community was swift to criticize the paper’s methods and conclusions as rushed and flawed, and the authors retracted the paper just a few days after it was published.
While this thankfully all happened before any major news outlets could report on the findings, this paper can only have added fuel to conspiracy theories around the origins of the virus. For the record, there is no evidence to suggest that Sars-CoV-2 is man-made. The novel coronavirus is simply too unique for it to have been engineered from an existing human virus.
In France, a paper titled ”Hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin: a potential interest in reducing in-hospital morbidity due to COVID-19 pneumonia (HI-ZY-COVID)” reported potential benefits of the drug hydroxychloroquine in combination with azithromycin in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. The paper was propagated by Fox News host Laura Ingraham, as well as the controversial French microbiologist and hydroxychloroquine fan Didier Raoult. However, the authors withdrew the paper just over a week after publication without stating their exact reason.
This would be far from the last paper concerning hydroxychloroquine to be retracted – at least 4 such papers have been withdrawn. Generally speaking, the quality of hydroxychloroquine studies have been poor and their results inconsistent. A meta-analysis of 29 studies in August and another meta-analysis of 12 studies in September both found no significant reduction in COVID-19 mortality with hydroxychloroquine treatment.
This paper from the University of Lyon, entitled ”First viral replication of Covid-19 identified in the peritoneal dialysis fluid”, reported the first incidence of viral replication within the dialysis fluid of a patient with kidney disease. The authors highlighted the ”importance in COVID-19 patients of considering dialysis fluid as a possible source of contamination”. However, the paper was later retracted by the authors. Why? Because the seven subsequent PCR tests all came in as negative, leading researchers to conclude that the original positive result was erroneous.
Like any other respiratory virus, Sars-Cov-2 gains access to the body via the respiratory tract, and there is currently no evidence for other forms of transmission.
In ”Effectiveness of Surgical and Cotton Masks in Blocking SARS–CoV-2: A Controlled Comparison in 4 Patients”, researchers reported that neither surgical nor cotton masks were effective at filtering SARS–CoV-2 during coughs by infected patients. However, the authors later acknowledged that they did not correctly interpret the results of the PCR test used to measure the amount of virus bypassing the masks. In short, the viral load they measured fell below the threshold needed to be distinguishable from the complete absence of virus. Consequently, the paper was withdrawn at the request of the editor.
Retracted coronavirus (COVID-19) papers: https://retractionwatch.com/retracted-coronavirus-covid-19-papers/
Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.01.30.927871
Hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin: a potential interest in reducing in-hospital morbidity due to COVID-19 pneumonia (HI-ZY-COVID)?: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.05.20088757
First viral replication of Covid-19 identified in the peritoneal dialysis fluid of a symptomatic patient: https://doi.org/10.25796/bdd.v3i1.54503
Effect of hydroxychloroquine with or without azithromycin on the mortality of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmi.2020.08.022
Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine for the Treatment of COVID-19: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis: doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06146-w
Effectiveness of Surgical and Cotton Masks in Blocking SARS–CoV-2: A Controlled Comparison in 4 Patients: https://doi.org/10.7326/M20-1342