Data detectives dig into ivermectin studies
The COVID pandemic is a great opportunity for fraudsters.
With the desperation for new treatments, a tsunami of research crashes onto preprint servers or is hurried into publication, breaching the dam wall of careful peer review.
Surfing that tsunami, fraudsters have seized the opportunity to make a name for themselves, particularly when it comes to publications that tout ivermectin – the worming medication – as a miracle cure for COVID.
With barriers breached, it has been left to self-appointed data detectives to sniff out fishy science.
The data detectives’ plea is that as a condition of publishing a meta-analysis, journals mandate that the raw data be made available for scrutiny. They acknowledge it won’t be easy. “We recognise… we are calling for change to nearly universally accepted practice over many decades, but the consequent potential for patient harm on a global scale demands nothing less.”
Proving anything in medicine is tough. Look at the back-and-forth debates over cholesterol and statins. To test a treatment, many types of studies are done, among them observational studies, which do not include an untreated control group, and randomised controlled trials, which do.
The randomised bit is crucial! If patients are not randomly assigned to get the treatment or the placebo, the results can be misleading. For instance, in some supposedly randomised trials for ivermectin, the control and treated groups were not equally infected with COVID, which makes any attempt to compare a treatment meaningless.
At the top of the hierarchy of evidence sits the meta-analysis. It is a “study of the studies”. It surveys everything in the field, collecting studies that show no effect (though these tend to be under-reported) as well as significant findings. It gives the greatest weight to the larger studies and then wields a statistical magic wand to divine the message hidden in the data.
The most rigorous meta-analyses are carried out by what is known as the Cochrane Library. Would-be reviewers submit their proposed research question and must pass an intense multi-stage vetting process to ensure rigour, transparency, reproducibility and lack of bias.
“It is a rigorous and onerous process – hence some researchers will publish their systematic reviews in other peer review journals,” explains Andrew McLachlan, dean of pharmacy at the University of Sydney who has been an author of Cochrane reviews.
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