Scientists question validity of major hydroxychloroquine study

Use of the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to prevent and treat Covid-19 has been a focus of intense public attention.
More than 100 scientists and clinicians have questioned the authenticity of a massive hospital database that was the basis for an influential study published last week that concluded that treating people who have Covid-19 with chloroquine and hydroxy-chloroquine did not help and might have increased the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and death.

In an open letter to The Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton, and the paper’s authors, the scientists asked the journal to provide details about the provenance of the data and called for the study to be independently validated by the World Health Organization or another institution.

A spokeswoman for  Mandeep R Mehra, the Harvard professor who was the paper’s lead author, said on Friday that the study’s authors had asked for an independent academic review and audit of their work.

Use of the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to prevent and treat Covid-19 has been a focus of intense public attention. President Trump has promoted the promise of hydroxychloroquine, despite the absence of gold-standard evidence from randomised clinical trials to prove its effectiveness, and recently said he was taking it himself in hopes of preventing coronavirus infection.

The scientists’ challenges to the Lancet paper come at a time of increasing debate about the risks of the rush to publish new medical findings about Covid-19. The paper, published May 22, included data on tens of thousands of patients hospitalised through April 14, meaning that the authors analysed the trove of data, wrote the paper and went through the journal’s peer review of its findings in just over five weeks, much faster than usual.

The experts who wrote The Lancet also criticised the study’s methodology and the authors’ refusal to identify any of the hospitals that contributed patient data, or to name the countries where they were located. The company that owns the database is Surgisphere, based in Chicago.

“Data from Africa indicate that nearly 25 per cent of all Covid-19 cases and 40 per cent of all deaths in the continent occurred in Surgisphere-associated hospitals which had sophisticated electronic patient data recording,” the scientists wrote. “Both the numbers of cases and deaths, and the detailed data collection, seem unlikely.”

Another of the critics’ concerns was that the data about Covid-19 cases in Australia was incompatible with government reports and included “more in-hospital deaths than had occurred in the entire country during the study period.”

A spokeswoman for The Lancet, Emily Head, said in an email that the journal had received numerous inquiries about the paper and had referred the questions to the authors.

“We will provide further updates as necessary,” she said. “The Lancet encourages scientific debate and will publish responses to the study, along with a response from the authors, in the journal in due course.”

© 2020 The New York Times News Service

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