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'Thrown under the bus': Research collaborative caves to media pressure on mask meta-study

Cochrane editor-in-chief may have violated publication ethics code by changing "interpretations" without approval from authors of study that found "little to no difference" from masks.

Published: March 16, 2023 4:34pm

Updated: March 17, 2023 12:08am

A public-private campaign to discredit a mask meta-study by one of the world's most respected research collaboratives has prompted that organization to mischaracterize the study's findings, according to doctors, scientists and journalists supporting the lead researcher.

Cochrane may have violated Committee on Publications Ethics (COPE) protocol by preempting the post-publication debate process with Editor-in-Chief Karla Soares-Weiser's March 10 statement deeming the study's results "inconclusive," overriding the authors' interpretation and framing.

"Cochrane has thrown its own researchers under the bus again" by giving "little workable notice" before purporting to speak in their name, University of Oxford epidemiologist Tom Jefferson, who has led the oft-updated mask meta-study since 2006, told medical scientist-turned-journalist Maryanne Demasi in a lengthy interview.

"It sends the message that Cochrane can be pressured by reporters to change their reviews," he said, citing a March 10 New York Times column by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci that explained why "the science is clear that masks work" and put Cochrane on the defensive for Jefferson's portrayal of the findings.

The dozen authors agreed to present their grievances to Cochrane about Soares-Weiser circumventing the "tried and tested way of handling criticisms" through back-and-forth with commenters on the review page, Jefferson said.

Without naming Cochrane, COPE told Demasi that publishers may not change the "interpretation and conclusions" of papers without getting the "input and approval" of the authors.

"Open season on scientists" is how Jefferson and Carl Heneghan, both of Oxford's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, described Cochrane's response to external pressure in their newsletter.

Jefferson previously accused the British charity, often labeled the "gold standard" of evidence-based medicine, of withholding his international research team's spring 2020 update for several months as COVID-19 pandemic policy was developing because it lacked the "right answer."

The 2022 update, composed of 78 randomized controlled trials through COVID, concluded that masks "may" or "probably make little to no difference" in suspected or confirmed flu or COVID infection. It called for "more high-quality RCTs" of the sort public health authorities inexplicably failed to conduct.

Published in January in the Cochrane Library, the update immediately drew attacks from prominent proponents of masking. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky minimized the findings before Congress because they were based on RCTs, rather than the uncontrolled observational studies the CDC favors.

"No doctor had ever said that in modern existence," Yale University epidemiologist Harvey Risch told "Just the News, No Noise,"  referring to Walensky's dismissal of RCTs as insufficient evidence,

The CDC's "cherry-picked" mask studies stand in contrast to "more than 150 studies that show that masks are useless for viral respiratory infections" as opposed to, say, "construction dust," the original purpose of N95 masks, he said. 

Public health authorities "rang this bell of panic and fear" to get Americans to wear primarily cloth masks with no evidence of benefit and "continue to cling to ideas that really had been discredited in the scientific community" before COVID, Stanford medical professor Jay Bhattacharya told JTNNN regarding the Cochrane study.

"Behavior manipulation by public health," not scientific thinking and results, are what drive continued masking, he said. 

Soares-Weiser's statement invoked "[m]any commentators" who have falsely said the meta-study shows "masks don't work." The truth is the "limitations in the primary evidence" mean the study can't answer the question, and the authors were "clear" about this.

The "plain language" summary, which said the authors were "uncertain" whether masking slows viral spread, was "open to misinterpretation," she said. "We are engaging" with the authors to update it.

Even as it faulted Jefferson for his interpretation of the meta-study, Tufekci's March 10 column continued the pattern of mainstream media misrepresenting the findings of the Bangladeshi and Danish COVID RCTs that Jefferson's group analyzed.

Tufekci asked Soares-Weiser about Jefferson's portrayals of the study in interviews, including that "there is just no evidence that [masks] make any difference," which the editor-in-chief called inaccurate.

"Cochrane's EIC should be fired" for not standing behind the authors and for adopting the "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" standard of mask proponents, University of California San Francisco epidemiologist Vinay Prasad wrote in his newsletter. "I have never witnessed [Jefferson] ever make an error in data interpretation."

The studies cited by Tufekci, whose early mask advocacy has been credited with influencing the CDC's about-face in April 2020, are like "citing mouse model research that a drug should work after the pooled analysis of randomized, phase 3 trials is negative," Prasad wrote.

Tufekci's request "blindsided" Cochrane, a Cochrane official told the review authors in an email obtained by former Senate Finance Committee investigator Paul Thacker, who cut his teeth on undisclosed pharmaceutical payments to doctors.

The unnamed official told the authors that Soares-Weiser "has taken responsibility for the loose wording" but that it wasn't conveyed in Tufekci's column. That raises the question why Tufekci "need[ed] to drag one of the 12 authors in her essay," Thacker wrote in his newsletter, referring to Jefferson.

Tufekci also has an undisclosed "scientific rivalry" with Jefferson, Thacker said: She coauthored a "narrative review" in the National Academy of Sciences' journal in January 2021 that claimed the "preponderance of evidence" favors masking. This study was too weak to be reviewed by Jefferson's team, Thacker said.

Cochrane is not the only science publisher recently accused of letting ideological considerations influence its decisions. 

Heavily redacted January emails turned over by Elsevier show its journal The Lancet discussing how to respond to British mathematician Norman Fenton, who submitted an immediate but never-acknowledged rebuttal to the May 2021 Pfizer COVID vaccine study it published, the source of the widely cited 95% efficacy claim.

The rebuttal, among other things, highlighted different testing protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated people and an allegedly undisclosed conflict of interest. Lancet staff first discussed what to offer Fenton to make up for ignoring him for 20 months and then started digging into him, sharing his "anti-vaxx" retweets and "helpful background," also redacted. 

While they eventually invited and received a revised letter, staff apparently dubbed Fenton a source of vaccine misinformation "right around the corner" from Lancet offices. The formal rejection letter was less personal but also mentioned misinformation.

"It is disturbing to realise how much effort was spent in an attempt to ensure that an obviously flawed study promoting the Pfizer vaccine was not challenged," Fenton wrote in his newsletter Tuesday.

Cochrane, The Lancet, COPE and Tufekci did not respond to Just the News queries.

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