June 4, 2020


Junuary has arrived, yes I spelled that right. That’s the chilly month of June in the Pacific Northwest. When I got home from work last night, I felt chilled to the bone. It wasn’t really that cold, but it definitely wasn’t warm. You can’t really expect summer here until the 5th of July. Jamie and I have learned to get around the chilliness by using season extenders or “walls of water” around our tomatoes or otherwise we don’t have a crop. They work. This evening we removed the walls of water off of a couple of plants that had outgrown them.

Lot of things going on, but the big news to me is that today both the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet retracted studies they published about COVID-19. These are unusual and rare events, especially for two journals to retract studies the same day. I explained early in the epidemic that scientists and physicians were working as fast as they could to understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. Because of the speed of the epidemic and the devastating disease that COVID-19 can be, articles were published as pre-prints that would then go through the usual peer review process. Both of these studies used the same huge, international database from a company that had never been heard of before. The data was subsequently unable to be verified. This is huge. It is a reminder why most studies have to go through peer review and validation before being published to avoid this embarrassment. But truly the most important goal is to avoid misinformation. We are still suffering the effects of the misinformation in an article that the Lancet retracted about vaccines and autism. That study continues to be cited by anti-vaxxers, even though it has been refuted again and again.

One study that was retracted today was the one that indicated hydroxycholoroquine might actually be harmful, rather than helpful. The other showed reassurance about using ACE inhibitors, a class of blood pressure medicine. To be clear, this does not mean that the conclusions are the opposite or wrong, it just means the conclusions are not supported or proven. Other studies are ongoing that are case controlled to learn about those issues, so we will eventually get more data. But it says to me that we still don’t know whether they help or harm or do neither.

It also points out the dangers of rushing to publish without the usual high standards of peer review. The goal is noble; it is to try and understand the virus as fast as possible. The cost is that errors could cause harm to patients. But it also causes harm to the reputations of the scientists and the journals, as well as sowing doubt to the public.

That is why I am sharing this article about how to read a science study.As an example this Lancet article shows that physical distancing is the most effective way to prevent transmission, with face masks and eye protection also helping. This New York Times article interprets the results differently- saying that only N95 Surgical masks are protective. If you read the article cited and the New York Times article you reach different conclusions. If you want to see what I mean, look at them both. The New York Times article is alarming but the Lancet article reassures me. It showed that regular masks helped (they actually weren't compared to N95’s) but distancing (1-2 meters) is even better. Interesting and dismaying to see the discrepancies between the journal and the media interpretation. We all can learn to filter what we read and not believe every source. Hat tip to my Infectious Disease consult, Dr. Tony Trinh, who gave me this information.

Wash your hands, cover your nose, and don’t forget “safe six”.

And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading