A highly influential study on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine against Covid-19 has been retracted over evidence it relied on bad data. Suspended trials have been restarted as a result. The news is already being manipulated to suit anti-science agendas, but a deeper look reveals how quickly science can address its mistakes.
Hydroxychloroquine has had a unique status in the pandemic. After a small and problematic study suggested it reduced the effects of the virus, President Trump hyped its powers. Right-wing commentators, and some anti-vaxxers, hailed it as a cure-all and denounced scientists who expressed caution.
Now, however, it has emerged that the largest and possibly most influential paper thought to disprove hydroxychloroquine relied on data from a little-known company, Surgisphere, which claimed to collate information from hospitals worldwide. Medical researchers have called into question whether Surgisphere has the people and experience to provide this service. Many of the hospitals it claims to be working with deny providing it with their data, and the founder's record does not inspire confidence.
As a result, The Lancet, the journal the paper was published in, has withdrawn it while reviewing the data to see whether any of it is valid, and if so whether there is enough for useful analysis. The World Health Organisation has restarted a hydroxychloroquine trial that was halted in response to the paper.
Surgisphere data was also used for a study of different drugs, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which has influenced treatment in Latin America. This has also been withdrawn so similar investigations can take place.
Inevitably, hydroxychloroquine enthusiasts are claiming vindication and denouncing scientists who questioned their faith, while those opposed to science entirely see the events as discrediting the whole process.
However, good science never relies on one paper alone. Dr Ian Musgrave of the University of Adelaide, said in a statement: “Even if we completely discount the Lancet studies, there is still significant evidence of lack of efficacy and potential harm that restarting clinical trials should be done carefully. And clinical trials are still needed.” Indeed, Musgrave noted, the paper's withdrawal coincides with a new paper, in the New England Journal of Medicine, using data from other sources, that finds no benefit from hydroxychloroquine administered shortly after exposure. The Lance paper may have overstated the side-effects, but their existence has been well-documented for decades.
“The Lancet case shows us that the scientific community must remain vigilant even with results we agree with and that data transparency and data sharing are even more important when we need to make good conclusions quickly in uncertain times," Dr Musgrave added.
The key to the scientific method is not that mistakes are never made, flawed humans get things wrong, but that they are detected and corrected rather than made dogma. Under the urgency of the pandemic errors, whether honest or fraudulent, are probably more common than usual. However, the decisions to withdraw the paper, two weeks after publication, and restart additional trials is a sign of science working as it should.