an illustration of the earth with lines illustrating its geomagnetic fields
an illustration of the earth with lines illustrating its geomagnetic fields

Paper Proposing COVID-19, Magnetism Link to Be Retracted

The study, published in a peer-reviewed journal, has attracted widespread derision from researchers.

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Shawna Williams

Shawna joined The Scientist in 2017 and is now a senior editor and interim news editor. She holds a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Colorado College and a graduate certificate...

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Nov 4, 2020

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Update (November 5): The study is now marked as temporarily removed from Elsevier’s site.

A peer-reviewed paper suggesting that COVID-19 is caused not by SARS-CoV-2 but by magnetic anomalies will be retracted, the study’s first author and an editor from the journal that published it tell The Scientist. The study, “Can Traditional Chinese Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis,” was posted on the website of the Elsevier publication Science of the Total Environment on October 8, but attracted widespread criticism beginning on October 29, leading the University of Pittsburgh–based authors to request the retraction.

“A paper like this gets out there, it’s published in some supposedly peer-reviewed journal—it makes the rest of the field look stupid,” says Joe Kirschvink, a Caltech geobiologist whose research areas include sensing of magnetic fields by humans and other animals. “And that’s a harmful thing.”

The study’s first author, Moses Bility, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health who studies infectious disease, tells The Scientist that the origin for the research came late last year, when a few rats in his lab unexpectedly became very ill and had to be sacrificed. “I’ve been working with animals since my undergraduate days,” he says, and hadn’t before seen an instance where “in the matter of 12 hours, a healthy animal, just drops, can’t breathe.” Examining the rats’ tissues in search of an explanation, Bility saw changes to their lungs and kidneys that he thought were similar to injuries he’d read about in humans that were ascribed to vaping

Bility began to suspect that there was a connection between the human vaping injuries and the pathology in the rats, which he suggests both stemmed from iron oxides in the lungs. “My argument was that the iron oxide that’s been deposited in these individuals’ lungs [from vaping] is somehow interacting with the lithospheric magnetic field,” he says. “And that’s triggering this process called magnetic catalysis, basically, it has to do with spin chemistry. And in our animals, somehow there’s some dysregulation—because they’re immunodeficient animals—in their iron that allows that same interaction to occur.” 

Bility posted a preprint to ResearchGate in November of last year laying out the idea. Asked why, if it was linked to immunodeficiency, the same phenomenon was not reported in immunodeficient humans, he says, “I don’t know all the answers,” adding, “I don’t know how well people have been looking.”

The group then had more rats die with the same pathology in February and March of this year, Bility says, and he connected the timing—close to the spring equinox, which he says is associated with changes in the geomagnetic field—to that of rising COVID-19 case numbers in the US. In the paper, he and his coauthors propose that SARS-CoV-2 is a preexisting, endogenous virus in the human genome that is reawakened by the effects of changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, but that the virus doesn’t cause the pathology seen in COVID-19. Rather, they suggest, the disease comes about due to other chemical reactions in the body catalyzed by the magnetic field. Asked whether the SARS-CoV-2 sequence has been found in the human genome, Bility says, “I’m not a genomic expert. That was just something I did want to look at, but I did not look at that.”

Kirschvink says the paper contains multiple basic errors. For example, while very strong magnetic fields can indeed influence chemical reactions, the long-wavelength anomalies that are central to the study’s thesis are “three or four orders of magnitude off” from what would be required for such effects, he says. “This results section is a salad of different ideas taken out of context.”

The study also suggests, without experimental evidence, that jade amulets might protect wearers by countering the effects of the long-wavelength anomalies, an idea Bility says he based on records of practices by ancient people in China and elsewhere during a period when geomagnetic conditions were similar to what they are now. Kirschvink says the study’s description of jade’s magnetic properties is incorrect, and that in jade, “the paramagnetic minerals are so weakly magnetized, they’re not going to do anything in these fields.”

Kirschvink says he’s heard from fellow geomagnetics researchers who “are upset that their data is being used in a nonsensical way” in the paper. 

The study has also attracted derision on Twitter and PubPeer. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine extracellular vesicle researcher Kenneth Witwer was among those who criticized the paper on PubPeer, writing in part, “Almost all symptoms were restricted to Room Number 1 of two adjacent rooms in Pittsburgh, suggesting that some agent such as an undetected pathogen was responsible for symptoms. Effects of the earth’s magnetic field would presumably be similar in side-by-side rooms at the same facility.”

Witwer also wrote an email with the subject line “virus denialism article: were you really involved?” on Friday to the paper’s senior authors, Yue Chen and Jean Nachega of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. In it, he calls the article “pseudoscience” and urges the authors to retract it immediately, adding that, “I have also written to the department heads about this serious situation.” Bility provided the email to The Scientist as an example of what he called an “online mob” that “has been attempting to damage my career and that of my colleagues.” 

For his part, Witwer writes in an email to The Scientist, “The academy needs to be vigilant against pseudoscience and giving a voice to it.” He’s concerned, he writes, that having such a paper published by scientists “with real NIH funding and at a preeminent university” might appear to validate specious claims that COVID-19 arises from some cause other than SARS-CoV-2, which he compares to similar claims in the past about HIV/AIDS that “led to public health disaster.”

Through a university spokesperson, Nachega declined to comment on the matter. Bility says that in light of the blowback his work has received, he regrets including his coauthors on the paper, and he takes full responsibility for its ideas. His intention, he says, was not to undermine public health officials, but to propose a hypothesis for further discussion and investigation, and he plans to resubmit the paper as a sole author and without mentions of jade amulets or traditional Chinese medicine.

Both Witwer and Kirschvink say the paper’s publication represents a failure of peer review. According to Damià Barceló, the editor at Science of the Total Environment who handled the submission, it had two reviewers, a hydrogeologist and an epidemiologist-toxicologist. In an email to The Scientist yesterday, he wrote that he expects the retraction will take hours or days to appear in Elsevier’s system, and that the resubmitted paper will need to be sent for peer review again before a final decision is made about its acceptance.