Fighting Coronavirus Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories: Fauci, Hydroxychloroquine, and Retracted ArticlesRead Now
Oh dear, so much COVID-19 misinformation, and conspiracy theories, and so little time and space. Let’s get started.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is receiving a lot of criticism from people, ranging from those who deny the severity of COVID-19 and think he misadvised the president, promoting the interests of political elites and the deep state, to those who think he is denying the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and promoting the economic interests of pharmaceutical companies to the detriment of the interests of patients. These people question his character, and call him a liar, a fraud, a traitor, and a saboteur who should be fired.
As it turns out, these insults are nothing compared to the insults levied against him when he was coordinating the nation’s response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The notorious firebrand AIDS activist Larry Kramer criticized Dr. Fauci for moving too slowly in finding a treatment for AIDS, and said he was evil and represented a callous government. Kramer called Fauci a pill-pushing tool of the medical establishment, an incompetent idiot, a disgrace, and a murderer who should be put in front of a firing squad. Kramer compared him to a Nazi and even insulted Fauci’s wife! So what did Dr. Fauci do? He talked to Kramer and other AIDS activists, he heard their concerns, he realized they had a point, and he pushed for changes in the way clinical trials were conducted speeding up the process, making it more flexible, and giving patients a greater voice. He reached out to those who insulted him and worked with them to change medicine for the better and make history. Eventually, Dr. Fauci and Kramer became good friends. Fauci helped Kramer get medical treatment for his health problems, and Kramer made Fauci a character in one of his award winning plays.
So when critics say Dr. Fauci doesn’t care for patients or is beholden to special interests, I am skeptical of these claims. I think that history so far indicates that this is not who Dr. Fauci is. This is not to say that Fauci doesn’t make mistakes, but I certainly believe that he is acting in the best interest of the American people. But can’t people change? Sure, but as far as I’m concerned, the burden of proof is on the critics to produce exceptional evidence that there is a nefarious intent behind his actions.
Another conspiracy theory involving Dr. Fauci states that he has known for 15 years that chloroquine (a drug related to hydroxychloroquine) was effective in hindering the spread of a virus, SARS-CoV, which is 79% related to the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2), in primate cells in culture based on a study published back in 2005. So it is claimed that Fauci is lying when he says that there is no good evidence for the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19.
Dr. Fauci is a competent scientist, and he knows that cell culture is a very preliminary step when employed to look for effective drugs. He knows that the results obtained with this method may not hold in more complete models that better reflect the complexity of the full organism. For example, hydroxychloroquine did not have either a therapeutic or prophylactic effect in hamsters and monkeys infected with the COVID-19 virus. This agrees with the best human studies so far that indicate that hydroxychloroquine is not effective.
Another conspiracy theory that is making the rounds concerns retracted articles published in the scientific journals, The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). These two journals published studies where scientists examined a database of patients treated with hydroxychloroquine and concluded not only that hydroxychloroquine was not effective, but that it was also harmful to the patients. The results of these studies led to a temporary halt of several hydroxychloroquine trials taking place worldwide. However, when the studies were examined by scientists, numerous discrepancies in the data and problems in its analysis were detected. Letters signed by more than one hundred scientists were delivered to the Lancet and to the NEJM outlining these problems. The journals expressed concerns about these discrepancies, and the authors of the articles retracted them when they were not able to dispel these concerns with the company that provided them with the hydroxychloroquine dataset.
The conspiracy argument alleges that the publication of these articles proves that there is a concerted campaign by the scientific establishment to discredit hydroxychloroquine at the expense of the lives of people who could benefit from it, just to embarrass president Trump for advocating the use of this drug. The conspiracy theory argues that this scandal demonstrates that scientists have lost all credibility.
However, what this argument ignores is that it was scientists who detected these problems and alerted the journals, and the journals proceeded to raise concerns with the authors, and the authors acknowledged those concerns and retracted the articles when they could not address said concerns. That this happened is not a scandal. Scientists make mistakes all the time. In fact, that is the strength of science. The only reason that science can be right is because it can be wrong. In this case, error was detected, addressed, and removed. The scandal would have been if the problems with the articles had not been addressed and the articles had not been retracted. The fact that the opposite happened is an indication that science worked the way it should, and vindicates our confidence in the scientific process.
Finally, another conspiracy theory involves the claim that countries that have embraced the use of hydroxychloroquine are doing better than countries that haven’t. Therefore, the unwarranted rejection of hydroxychloroquine by the health care systems of some countries has led to many preventable deaths. Those that espouse this conspiracy theory do not make any efforts to address other variables that could explain these differences. For example, there is the number of infected people that spread the disease initially in the country (more disease spreaders equals more infections and more problems with the health care system). There is the timing of the spread of the disease (earlier spread means less time to adapt). There is the constellation of drugs and procedures that are used to treat patients (how do you separate the effect of hydroxychloroquine from that of other drugs and/or procedures). There is the age and health of the population affected (younger healthier people are less susceptible). There is the strength and effectiveness of the mitigation measures employed (older sicker people could have been protected better in one country than in another another). There are differences in reporting what constitutes a COVID-19 death from one country to another. If these and other variables are not considered and controlled for, the claim does not go beyond a mere anecdote.
The misinformation and conspiracy theories I’ve mentioned are but a fraction of all the bilge that’s out there, but what they all have in common is that they are part of an effort to disqualify mainstream science and scientists as they deal with COVID-19 and evaluate hydroxychloroquine and other drugs.
The image of Dr. Fauci ny NIAID is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. The image of hydroxychloroquine by Fvasconcellos is in the public domain.