The COVID-19 pandemic has created a surge in potentially flawed scientific studies as researchers rush to publish results without adequate oversight, a leading medical ethicist said on Friday.
Since the novel coronavirus appeared late last year there had been more than 4,000 academic papers relating to the virus, many of which had appeared online without the benefit of a full peer-review process.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Katrina Bramstedt, a professor at the Bond University Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, Queensland, warned that rushed or inaccurate research could put lives at risk.
‘Patient harm that is significant, permanent and irreversible could result from using faulty research results from pre-prints as well as published papers,’ she wrote.
As of the end of July, there were 19 published articles and 14 pre-prints — papers that had not yet been peer reviewed — dealing with COVID-19 that were retracted, withdrawn, or tagged with an ‘expression of concern’.
Most of these occurred in Asia, with China alone responsible for 11 retractions or withdrawals.
One of the most high profile retractions was of a paper published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal on the effectiveness of treating COVID-19 patients with the anti-arthritis drug hydroxychloroquine.
The research, released in May, prompted the World Health Organisation to pause its trials of hydroxychloroquine after the results suggested the drug had no positive effects on hospitalised individuals and might in fact increase the likelihood of death.
The study was withdrawn after a group of experts raised ‘both methodological and data integrity concerns’ about it.
In September The Lancet said that it had bolstered its peer-review system to ensure at least one reviewer was an expert on the area of research in question.
Another study — also in The Lancet — on a potential Russian vaccine raised concerns among Western scientists over a lack of safety data.
An open letter signed by more than 30 Europe-based experts last month cast doubt on the Russian findings, pointing towards potentially duplicated data.
The Lancet had asked the authors in Russia for clarifications.
Bramstedt said that scientists were under increased pressure to get research out in the public sphere as the world races towards effective COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
‘Research normally occurs at the speed of a marathon, but during a pandemic, the pace is more like a sprint,’ she wrote.
She said that the pandemic had created a ‘surge’ of manuscripts, something which the fleet of journal reviewers were struggling to keep pace with.
‘No research team is exempt from the pressures and speed at which COVID-19 research is occurring,’ said Bramstedt, adding, ‘And this can increase the risk of honest error as well as deliberate misconduct.’
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