If you’ve paid any attention to anti-vaxxers, or are on the mailing list of some annoying conservative, you may have heard this one: there is a peer-reviewed study in an established science journal that shows that vaccines kill almost as many people as the pandemic. Oh no, you might say, maybe I shouldn’t get vaccinated if doing so has a significant risk of death!
Unfortunately, as I’ve said before, sometimes complete bollocks slithers through the peer-review process, and this is no exception. It’s such utter garbage that the board of the guilty journal is experiencing a wave of resignations in protest
Several reputed virologists and vaccinologists have resigned as editors of the journal Vaccines to protest its 24 June publication of a peer-reviewed article that misuses data to conclude that “for three deaths prevented by [COVID-19] vaccination, we have to accept two inflicted by vaccination.”
Since Friday, at least six scientists have resigned positions as associate or section editors with Vaccines, including Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Katie Ewer, an immunologist at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford who was on the team that developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Their resignations were first reported by Retraction Watch.
It’s a case study in how to destroy a journal’s reputation with a single stupid paper.
The paper is a case of “garbage in, garbage out,” says Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist who directs the Vaccine Datalink and Research Group at the University of Auckland and who also resigned as a Vaccines editor after reading the paper. Diane Harper, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who was founding editor-in-chief of Vaccines, also resigned, as did Paul Licciardi, an immunologist at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Parkville, Australia, and Andrew Pekosz, a respiratory virologist at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The resignations began Friday, the day after the paper was published. By early Monday, Fanny Fang, the journal’s managing editor, wrote to the editorial board members that Vaccines—a reputable open-access journal launched in 2013 by Basel, Switzerland–based publisher MDPI—had opened an investigation into the paper. “We are treating this case with the utmost seriousness and are committed to swiftly correcting the scientific record,” she wrote.
The first obvious problem is that none of the paper’s authors have any expertise in the field. Further, the reviewers who let it through are similarly bereft of experience. Despite the fact that the journal is titled Vaccine, apparently some of the editors are also lacking in relevant knowledge.
None of the paper’s authors is trained in vaccinology, virology, or epidemiology. They are: Harald Walach, a clinical psychologist and science historian by training who describes himself as a health researcher at Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland; Rainer Klement, a physicist who studies ketogenic diets in cancer treatment at the Leopoldina Hospital in Schweinfurt, Germany; and Wouter Aukema, an independent data scientist in Hoenderloo, Netherlands.
The three peer reviewers on the paper, two of them anonymous, did not offer any substantial criticism of the authors’ methodology in these brief reviews. One of them, Anne Ulrich, a chemist who directs the Institute of Biological Interfaces and is chair of biochemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, wrote that the authors’ analysis “is performed responsibly … and without methodological flaws … and the results were interpreted with the necessary caveats.”
To make it worse, the authors relied on data from a Dutch study…and the authors of that study are saying that their work was misused and inappropriately interpreted.
On 25 June, the day after the paper’s publication, Lareb’s head of science and research, Eugène van Puijenbroek, sent an email to Vaccines’s editors, criticizing the paper and requesting a correction or retraction.
“A reported event that occurred after vaccination is … not necessarily being caused by the vaccination, although our data was presented as being causally related by the authors,” van Puijenbroek wrote. “Suggesting all reports with a fatal outcome to be causally related is far from truth.”
He also took the authors to task for stating in the paper that “the Dutch [registry] data, especially the fatal cases, were certified by medical specialists.”
“This point is simply incorrect,” van Puijenbroek wrote. “The authors seem to refer to [Lareb’s] policy plan. However, in this plan (in Dutch), it is nowhere mentioned that the reports are ‘certified’ by medical specialists.”
Woopsie. The paper has since been retracted, and the journal is doing an in-house investigation of how this screwup occurred, but it looks to me like a whole lot of the people competent to carry out such an investigation have up and quit altogether. And the damage has been done. The anti-vaxxers will continue to cite the paper — they still think Andrew Wakefield’s work was credible — and they’ll scream “Cover up!” at the retraction.