Follow Us

COVID alarmism outlasts emergency with exaggerated research touted by Pulitzer winner

Chinese researchers claim long COVID rate is 70% in press release without publishing study. False portrayal of Omicron variant study travels further than researcher's clarification.

Published: May 4, 2023 11:33pm

COVID-19 national and public health emergencies are ending next week, but the breathless headlines that helped prompt and sustain them for three years show little sign of winding down.

Physicians, scientists and public figures who promote the narrative of a society-wide threat from increasingly mild SARS-CoV-2 are seizing on research purporting to show staggering rates of so-called long COVID and an existential threat from a new Omicron subvariant.

Their critics note crucial limitations of the studies, including an explicit acknowledgment from one paper's coauthor about the non-applicability of the findings to the general public.

Long COVID has seized the imaginations of not only the National Institutes of Health, which received $1.15 billion from Congress in December 2020 to study a self-reported condition that still has no confirmed biological causes, but also Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalists Laurie Garrett and Ed Yong, whose recent Atlantic feature claims it's being "erased."

Chinese University of Hong Kong researchers have published two long-COVID studies this spring, one peer-reviewed and the other apparently just a press release that drew wide international attention. 

Their JMIR Public Health and Surveillance study is based on an online survey of 2,712 adults in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong with documented infections between January 2020 and June 2022, mostly 25-44 years old and women.

The long-COVID prevalence was implausibly high — 90% overall, 62% "moderate or severe" and 31% severe, defined as persistent symptoms at least three months after infection.

The most commonly reported symptoms for severe long COVID (each at 30%-33% of respondents) were fatigue, cough, sore throat, "difficulty in concentrating" and "feeling of anxiety." The highest risk factors included female sex, "chronic medication use," three or more "chronic diseases," smoking and especially "poor or very poor self-perceived health status."

Nearly four in five had pneumonia when they were diagnosed, and almost as many required hospitalization (72%), followed by antivirals (64%), oxygen (53%), "artificial ventilation" (36%) and ICU admission (35%). 

The vast majority had taken at least two doses of China's mediocre SinoVac, accepted as proof of COVID vaccination by some American universities that rejected more effective natural immunity as an alternative, while 6% took two or more Pfizer doses. The researchers said both were protective factors.

CUHK's Hong Kong-only study, which does not appear to be published outside of its April 20 press release, drew much wider attention due to the South China Morning Post

Its headline-grabbing findings: 70% of participants had "at least one long COVID symptom at a median of five months," and 12% had "reproductive problems" such as menstrual irregularity, sexual dysfunction or "increased sensitivity in the groin area," four in five of them women.

Touted as "Asia's largest population-based long COVID survey," with about 10,000 participants ages 1 to 102 who were surveyed by unidentified means from July to December, the release said the most common symptoms (38%) were "neuropsychiatric," including memory problems, difficulty concentrating, anxiety and "negative moods." 

They affected mostly women ages 45 and up and those with COVID-related hospitalization. Nearly all participants (97%) "likely" had Omicron infections.

Georgia-based COVID analyst Kelley Krohnert, known for documenting repeated COVID data errors by the CDC, noted the JMIR study's section on limitations left out that more than half the respondents had "severe or critical" COVID. "I highly suspect their latest results [in the press release] suffer similar issues," she tweeted

Neither CUHK Dean of Medicine Francis Chan Ka-leung, an author on both studies, nor colleagues he provided in an auto-reply email responded to Just the News questions about the research.

Science journalist Garrett, known for her work on Ebola and membership on the World Economic Forum's Global Health Security Advisory Board, drew criticism for uncritically promoting the Hong Kong study and claiming an India study showed that a "new mutant" version of COVID variant Omicron "may be especially deadly."

Pulitzer winner shares false characterization of COVID study
Pulitzer winner shares false characterization of COVID study
Laurie Garrett/Twitter

The latter, by researchers at Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Government Medical College and Sassoon General Hospitals, said the new XBB.1.16 lineage was "causing a surge" in cases in India, representing a plurality of around 2,800 SARS-CoV-2 sequences they retrieved from Dec. 1-April 8, though its clinical features resembled "co-circulating Omicron variants."

The preprint, which has not been peer-reviewed, said 92% of XBB.1.16 cases were symptomatic, 18% had a comorbidity and 92% were in people with at least one vaccine dose. A quarter required hospitalization or "institutional quarantine," and of those, a third required oxygen. 

Seven died, most of whom were at least 60 years old, had an underlying comorbidity and needed oxygen.

Garrett gave the study wide visibility by promoting a journalist's claim that the research showed XBB.1.16 has a 1-in-40 death rate and 30% hospitalization rate. She deleted her tweet Thursday as criticism mounted and a study coauthor corrected the false impression.

Prompted by Garrett's tweet, University of Melbourne medical professor Fiona Russell noted "the denominator seems to be cases sequenced," which is "likely to be biased towards ICU & severe cases" rather than representative of all XBB.1.16 cases. 

Corresponding author Rajesh Karyakarte confirmed to Russell the study was "skewed" because it was limited to a subset of sequenced samples with infections confirmed by PCR testing, mostly symptomatic.

"Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist [quote-tweets] one of the worst accounts on this platform without actually reading the study, gets 300k views and 1,560 likes," one Garrett critic said. "Author of the actual damn study responds with a clarification, gets 30 views and 3 likes."

"Laurie clearly didn't bother to read the study, which concludes that this variant is similar to other Omicron variants and not more severe," Krohnert wrote. Garrett didn't respond to Just the News queries on how closely she reads studies before sharing them. 

Just the News Spotlight

Support Just the News