Public Health Journal 'Seeking Further Expert Advice' on January Paper About COVID-19 PCR Testing by High-Profile Virologist

Retraction Watch Staff

December 08, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

After a petition from nearly two dozen people in Europe, the United States and Asia, a public health journal says it is investigating an article it published last January about a way to detect the virus that causes COVID-19.

The paper, "Detection of 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) by real-time RT-PCR," appeared in Eurosurveillance. It was received on January 21 and accepted on January 22, a remarkably quick turnaround under normal circumstances, although not unheard of during the pandemic. It has been cited well over 800 times, according to Clarivate Analytics' Web of Science.

The senior author of the work was Christian Drosten, of the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, who became something of a celebrity virologist — the Anthony Fauci of Germany — in the early days of the pandemic. As Science reported in late April, Drosten's podcast, Coronavirus Update, became the most popular podcast in Germany, garnering more than 1 million downloads per episode.

But, as with Fauci in the United States, Drosten has become a target of criticism, largely from political conservatives, who complain that what they consider to be flawed science is informing economically damaging policies. An article in May in Bild, a right-wing tabloid, accused Drosten of having "worked dishonestly," and peddling "false conclusions" about the infectivity of the SARS-Co-V2 virus. But the newspaper apparently only gave him an hour to respond to their questions.

As Bloomberg reported in September, Drosten's handling of the Bild story earned him hero status on social media:

A German model proposed to him on Twitter, demanding a response within the hour or else she'd assume they're engaged. ZSK, a punk band in Berlin, released a song called I Have Better Things to Do. The accompanying music video features a cartoon Drosten angrily throwing away a cellphone with Bild on its screen and blasting viruses with laser beams shooting out of his eyeballs.

The petition doesn't call Drosten dishonest. But it does demand that Eurosurveillance retract his group's paper for a litany of "scientific and methodological blemishes," which it enumerates in detail (10 points, to be precise). The second author of the petition, Bobby Rajesh Malhotra, described what he called "the very specific behavioral-patterns, underlying market-architecture, fraudulent scientific methods, orthodox rituals of the vast pharma-wasp nest set around the queen wasp Christian Drosten" in a 124-tweet thread in October.

Central to the group's claims is the notion that Drosten and colleagues failed to prove that PCR testing can identify the SARS-Co-V-2 virus. The result, they claim, has been:

worldwide misdiagnosis of infections attributed to SARS-CoV-2 and associated with the disease COVID-19. We are confronted with stringent lockdowns which have destroyed many people's lives and livelihoods, limited access to education and these imposed restrictions by governments around the world are a direct attack on people's basic rights and their personal freedoms, resulting in collateral damage for entire economies on a global scale.

The statement from Eurosurveillance reads:

We have recently received correspondence regarding a paper published this year, questioning both the content and the editorial procedures used to evaluate the article prior to publication. We can assure our readers and authors that we take comments relating to scientific content, the processing of articles and editorial transparency seriously.

All articles published by the journal are peer-reviewed by at least two independent experts in the field (or at least one in the case of rapid communications). The article in question was also peer-reviewed by two experts on whose recommendation the decision to publish was made.

Eurosurveillance is seeking further expert advice and discussing the current correspondence in detail. We will, according to our existing procedures, evaluate the claims and make a decision as soon as we have investigated in full. In the meantime, it would be unfair to all concerned to comment or discuss further until we have looked at all the issues.

Drosten has not yet responded to a request for comment. (For the record: We gave him nearly 48 hours, not one.)