KUALA LUMPUR, July 16 — A major study often cited by pro-ivermectin proponents to treat Covid-19 was withdrawn yesterday over “ethical concerns”, following discoveries of potential data fabrication and plagiarism.
The Guardian reported that Jack Lawrence, a medical student in London, was among the first to uncover serious concerns about the preprint study, led by Dr Ahmed Elgazzar from Egypt’s Benha University, on the efficacy and safety of parasitic drug ivermectin in treating Covid-19. Ivermectin is often used to treat head lice.
Dr Elgazzar’s study — which was published on the Research Square website last November and subsequently pulled yesterday — claimed to be a randomised control trial and purported that hospitalised Covid-19 patients who “received ivermectin early reported substantial recovery” and there was a “a substantial improvement and reduction in mortality rate in ivermectin treated groups” by 90 per cent.
However, Lawrence found that the Elgazzar paper’s entire introduction section appeared to have been plagiarised from various sources. Common students’ plagiarism techniques seemed to have been used in the paper, such as by using synonyms or by changing one or two words, leading to “severe acute respiratory syndrome” — part of the full name of the Covid-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2 — being renamed as “extreme intense respiratory syndrome”.
“Another example is ‘The coronavirus has been a known pathogen in animals since the early 1970s’, which in Elgazzar et al.’s preprint becomes ‘Coronavirus has been a recognised pathogen in animals in early 1960s’,” Lawrence wrote.
More disturbingly, Lawrence found that raw data for the Elgazzar study apparently contradicted the study protocol on several occasions.
Authors reportedly claimed to have commenced the trial on June 8 last year after receiving ethical approval, but raw data showed that the study recruited and treated several patients before this date. Almost half of the patients who died during the trial also died before June 8, 2020.
Moreover, the authors claimed that they conducted their trial on participants aged 18 to 80 years old, but raw data contained records for four patients below the age of 18.
Chronic disease epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz from Australia’s University of Wollongong tweeted that authors of the Elgazzar study had locked their raw data online, but Lawrence figured out the password: 1234.
Lawrence found that the raw data did not match the study’s public results, with discrepancies in three of the four study arms measuring patient deaths as an outcome.
“In their paper, the authors claim that four out of 100 patients died in their standard treatment group for mild and moderate Covid-19. According to the original data they uploaded, the number was 0 (the same as the ivermectin treatment group). In their ivermectin treatment group for severe Covid-19, the authors claim two patients died – the number in their raw data is four.”
Lawrence shared the study’s original data with Nick Brown, a data analyst affiliated with Linnaeus University in Sweden who reviews scientific papers for errors, who found multiple instances of data being copied between patients, including the typo “coguh” for “cough”.
“It is also unlikely that these repetitions of data are due to an innocent copy and paste error when rearranging records in the file, as some columns contain identical patterns of data with minor adjustments to one or two numbers (possibly to make the fabrication less obvious),” said Lawrence.
Sydney-based doctor and researcher Kyle Sheldrick, who had been independently looking at the Elgazzar paper, reportedly found that many of the patients in the study who died appeared to be duplicates, comprising around half of recorded deaths.
“To Sheldrick, fraud is the most straightforward explanation for these findings. Although much of the patient data is identical, minor changes exist, further proving that a simple copy and paste error cannot be the cause of the duplicates,” said Lawrence.
Meyerowitz-Katz similarly found apparent data cloning in the Elgazzar paper, tweeting: “This is a very common feature of scientific fraud.”
He told The Guardian that it appeared to him the data was “just totally faked”.
“Because the Elgazzar study is so large, and so massively positive – showing a 90 per cent reduction in mortality – it hugely skews the evidence in favour of ivermectin,” Meyerowitz-Katz was quoted saying.
“If you remove this one study from the scientific literature, suddenly there are very few positive randomised control trials of ivermectin for Covid-19. Indeed, if you get rid of just this research, most meta-analyses that have found positive results would have their conclusions entirely reversed.”
The World Health Organization said last March that ivermectin should not be used to treat Covid-19 outside clinical trials, while the United States’ Food and Drug Administration has also strongly advised against using ivermectin — often used in the US to treat or prevent parasites in animals — as Covid-19 treatment.