As misinformation abounds regarding the novel coronavirus, scientists, health officials, and even Facebook are trying to combat the spread of fake news and questionable scientific findings. In the most recent takedown of inaccurate information, Science reports today (February 4) that a widely reported study describing the case of an asymptomatic woman who transmitted coronavirus to a colleague while visiting Germany from China was based on misleading accounts.
According to the news report, the authors who published their findings of asymptomatic transmission in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) last week gathered their evidence from interviews with other patients who had been in contact with her. But when government health officials in Germany spoke to the woman herself, she reported having felt sick at the time the transmission occurred.
“I feel bad about how this went, but I don’t think anybody is at fault here,” coauthor Christian Drosten, a virologist at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, tells Science. “Apparently the woman could not be reached at first and people felt this had to be communicated quickly.”
Officials at the Robert Koch Institute, one of the government agencies that spoke to the patient, have written a letter to the journal and requested a correction.
The revelation doesn’t rule out the possibility of asymptomatic transmission of the virus, which, according to CNN today, has infected more than 20,000 people and killed 426. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Science that in a phone conversation with a colleague in China, “He said that he is convinced that there is asymptomatic infection and that some asymptomatic people are transmitting infection.”
The NEJM report is one of a number of scientific papers on the new virus that are taking heat for poor quality. For instance, a paper published last month in the Journal of Medical Virology concluded that snakes were a likely source of the coronavirus—but a number of experts who spoke to Nature dismissed the finding. “They have no evidence snakes can be infected by this new coronavirus and serve as a host for it,” Paulo Eduardo Brandão, a virologist at the University of São Paulo, told Nature.
In another case, a preprint posted on bioRxiv last week that described “uncanny” similarities between HIV and 2019-nCoV has been “withdrawn,” although the PDF is still available. Researchers questioned the scientists’ techniques and conclusions, ultimately spurring the authors to retract their report.
“This is entirely bunk and bunk with bad citations and sourcing at that,” a commenter wrote on the preprint’s page.
Writing in STAT, Retraction Watch editors Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus note the rapidity of the reaction from the scientific community and subsequent response from authors as an upside to preprints. They say that detractors point out that peer review might have prevented such material from making it out in the public in the first place, but even peer-reviewed articles—the NEJM paper as a case in point—can be flawed. “Now we get to wait and see how long it takes NEJM to correct the record,” they write.
Kerry Grens is a senior editor and the news director of The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.