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There have been 154 retracted COVID studies. The damage may already be done

September 2, 2021, 11:21 PM UTC

Happy Thursday, readers.

If a COVID study is retracted from a medical journal, does it make a sound—or at the very least seep into the public consciousness the way the now-pulled research originally did?

It’s a rhetorical question (public awareness of study findings tend to stop at a retraction’s edge, unfortunately). But I ask it because as of September 1, Retraction Watch has tagged 154 retracted COVID-19 papers. And if longstanding evidence is any indication, very few of them will receive the level of traditional and social media play after they’ve been discredited than they did prior to an academic rebuke.

That’s especially relevant to COVID containment efforts as the public health campaign against the coronavirus has been plagued by misinformation, whether on testing, treatments, vaccines, or even the origins of the virus itself. But even people who aren’t part of the tin foil hat crowd may buy into a study that carries an illusory sheen of prestige in the pages of a medical journal. And if you glance at the spectrum of studies tagged by Retraction Watch, which range from those promoting the use of the unproven horse and livestock parasite-fighter ivermectin for coronavirus to those supporting some of the more bizarre conspiracies about 5G networks giving people COVID, that’s a serious problem during a pandemic which has yet to crest.

There are all sorts of reasons these various studies were retracted. Some didn’t receive proper informed consent from patients who were unknowingly used for such research; others just didn’t have verifiable or robust datasets to support sweeping claims such as hydroxychloroquine’s and ivermectin’s effectiveness against COVID.

Science is a process, and mistakes happen along the way. This is why academic peer review and watchdog policies such as medical journal retractions exist in the first place. The trouble lay in what happens (or doesn’t happen) next.

“Our findings reveal that retracted articles may receive high attention from media and social media and that for popular articles, pre-retraction attention far outweighs post-retraction attention,” write Stanford School of Medicine researchers in a paper published this past May.

There’s some nuance here. For instance, a retracted article may actually get some public attention if the big news event driving it is the retraction itself. Nearly 60% of retracted articles received most of their attention after retraction, according to the Stanford researchers. But things are a bit different (and harmful) when it comes to the most problematic studies. “However, this is not the case for the popular articles, which by the nature of being popular may also be the ones most likely to spread misinformation,” according to the authors. “These articles tend to receive 2.5 times the amount of attention received by their retraction after adjusting for attention received because of retraction.”

As it turns out, some scientific bells simply can’t be unrung.

Read on for the day’s news, enjoy the Labor Day weekend, and see you again next Thursday.

Sy Mukherjee
sy.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

DIGITAL HEALTH

The Theranos legal drama begins. One of the most hotly-anticipated legal trials of this young decade has officially begun, with disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes in the legal hot seat over allegations of defrauding investors by pitching them a new kind of blood diagnostics technology the company hadn't successfully created. NBC News reports that Holmes' legal team turned to some creative legal strategizing in preparation for the trial, readying a narrative that Holmes' co-defendant and one time partner Sunny Balwani subjected her to intimate partner abuse and that Holmes was only acting under his influence. They don't call it legal "drama" for no reason. (NBC News)

INDICATIONS

FDA fallout from COVID boosters highlights long-standing agency fault lines. Several prominent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) staff have resigned in a growing conflict with the Biden administration over COVID vaccines and boosters, including Dr. Marion Gruber, director of the FDA's Office of Vaccines Research and Review (OVRR), who plans to retire on Oct. 31, according to a memo from Peter Marks, director of the agency's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER). The longtime agency veterans were reportedly disillusioned with what they saw as political meddling by the Biden administration into what's supposed to be an independent regulatory process. The administration has pushed for quicker authorizations for vaccine booster shots and telegraphed its goals publicly, a move that critics say undermines the FDA process. Such conflict is particularly dramatic during a pandemic like COVID, but fault lines over internal and external politicking both within and outside of the FDA are nothing new. While empirical facts are supposed to dictate the agency's decisions, controversial and accelerated drug approvals for treatments without much efficacy data show that's not always the case in the face of patient advocate, pharmaceutical, and interest group lobbying, highlighting a long-festering debate over the FDA's proper role and responsibilities. (Endpoints News)

What's driving the ivermectin frenzy. Why would you take horse paste when there are several perfectly good COVID vaccines around and available for free? I took a look into the psychology of vaccine skepticism and how some in this crowd may promote entirely unproven treatments like ivermectin despite the protestations of experts and the available data. Scottish psychologist Stuart Ritchie of King's College London has a fairly simple hypothesis: "The reason for the double-standard is obvious: contrarianism. Treatments such as ivermectin (and hydroxychloroquine and Vitamin D) have never had mainstream approval, or the nod from U.K. or U.S. medical regulators for their use against COVID," he wrote in a recent column for the NewStatesman. "The contrarians can get excited about the apparently dramatic effects of ivermectin without having to agree with people they regard as wildly wrong on case rates, death rates, the effects of lockdowns, and so on. They also get to feel the frisson of telling the world that they know better: They have secret knowledge about a super-important treatment, and the blinkered medical community just won’t listen." (Fortune)

THE BIG PICTURE

Nation's most restrictive abortion ban takes effect in Texas. Texas's SB8, an ultra-extreme ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy (a time during which many women don't even know they're pregnant) with an enforcement mechanism that gives regular citizens the power to sue any provider or service that aids a woman in getting an abortion after that timeframe, has gone into effect in the Lone Star State following the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to issue an injunction against the law. Abortion and women's health services providers in Texas have already sounded the alarm over threats to their facilities and what they fear will be a deluge of legal proceedings by people looking to make a buck off the new law. My colleague Nicole Goodkind explores whether or not this kind of legislation can and will be emulated in other parts of the U.S. without a federal law to stop it. (Fortune)

REQUIRED READING

COVID variant Mu added to WHO watchlistby Chris Morris

What to expect in the 2022 housing marketby Anne Sraders

Beijing's new algorithm laws are a global first but might not workby Eamon Barrett

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