Dr. Elisabeth Bik, a world-renowned Dutch expert in identifying scientific mistakes and errors, has been threatened with legal action for questioning the integrity of a study promoting the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19.
The case, brought before the French state prosecutor by controversial infectious disease physician Dr. Didier Raoult, has prompted hundreds of scientists around the world to publish an open letter calling for scientific whistleblowers to be protected.
In March 2020, Bik published a blog post analyzing an article Directed by Raoult. Their article claimed that hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, was effective in treating Covid infections, especially when given in combination with an antibiotic.
Bik raised questions about the methodology of the articleEven the researchers had failed to control for confounders. In robust clinical trials, the control group (receiving a placebo) and the treatment group (receiving the drug) need to be as similar as possible so that scientists can be sure that the effects are solely due to the drug.
Bik pointed out that patients must be of a similar age and gender ratio, equally ill at the start of treatment, and analyzed in the same way, with the only difference being whether they received treatment or not. She said the treatment and placebo groups in Raoult’s study they differed in important ways that could have affected the results.
Six patients enrolled in the treatment group at the beginning of the study were not counted at the end, as they were missing from the data.
“What happened to the other six patients treated?” Bik said.
“Why did they drop out of the study? Three of them were transferred to the intensive care unit, presumably because they became more ill, and one died. It seems a little strange to leave these four patients who got worse or died out of the study, simply because they stopped taking the drug … which is quite difficult once the patient is dead. “
Despite the questions raised by Bik and other scientists, then-US President Donald Trump promoted Raoult’s article and the use of hydroxychloroquine for Covid, which helped the French doctor gain attention.
In July, the French Infectious Diseases Society filed a complaint against Raoult saying it was unethical to promote hydroxychloroquine during a pandemic, given that there was little evidence that it worked against Covid. The International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents raised similar concerns.
Evidence from multiple solid and well-conducted studies It has since found that hydroxychloroquine has little to no impact on illness, hospitalization, or death from Covid.
Bik, who is hired as a consultant by scientific institutions around the world to analyze data and identify inappropriate research behaviors, went on to identify image duplication and potential ethical issues in 62 published articles by Raoult and his institute.
Raoult and his followers have relentlessly attacked Bik since, calling her a “madman” and a “failed investigator” on Twitter and in media interviews, and by posting their contact details online. This is despite Bik also exposing errors in articles that found that hydroxychloroquine did not provide any benefit to Covid patients.
Raoult’s colleague Professor Eric Chabriere revealed on Twitter that he and Raoult filed a complaint against Bik and Boris Barbour, who help run a non-profit website called PubPeer that allows scientists to analyze and provide feedback on the work of others.
The lawsuit alleges harassment because Bik exposes data errors in PubPeer and extortion because he has a Patreon account where people can donate at your work. She has responded to Raoult’s calls on Twitter to declare who is funding her by sharing links to her Patreon.
Lonni Besançon, a French postdoctoral researcher at Monash University in Australia, said he had also received multiple death threats from Raoult supporters after expressing concern about Raoult’s work.
“But the attacks I receive as a white male are a fraction of what male and female investigators of color receive,” she said.
He and other international scientists have posted an open letter calling for the attacks against Bik to stop and for the scientific community to support her and other whistleblowers. As of Saturday I had more than 500 signatories.
“Academic criticism, particularly on questions of research integrity, is fraught with challenges,” the letter said.
“This makes it particularly important to keep the focus on addressing such criticisms with scientific evidence and not attacks on people’s appearance, character or person.”
Bik was recognized internationally for doing work “fundamental to ethical, robust and reproducible investigation, but it also introduces her to personal risk as a whistleblower.”
“For several months, Raoult and some members of her institute have responded by insulting her on national television, revealing her personal address on social media and threatening legal action for harassment and defamation.
“The behavior of Professor Raoult and his team towards Dr. Bik and others has been pointed out by many international media outlets … This strategy of harassment and threats creates a chilling effect for whistleblowers and for academic critics in general.”
Guardian Australia has contacted Raoult for comment.
Besançon said that institutions and policy makers must act to protect whistleblowers like Bik, and said the threats against him had become “ridiculous.”
“We also want citizens and scientists who may try to sue whistleblowers to understand that this is not a legal concern but a scientific one,” he said. “Dr. Bik is an incredible scientist and we want to make sure that no dangerous precedent is set with the current legal situation around her.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism