Ron Johnson demands records from medical journals that retracted COVID-19 studies

Sen. Ron Johnson has sent letters to two prominent medical journals demanding records related to the publication and subsequent retractions of two COVID-19 studies in 2020 that were based on a questionable dataset. 

One of the retracted studies, published in The Lancet in May 2020, found that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine caused a higher mortality rate in COVID-19 patients compared to those that didn’t take the drug. The World Health Organization and other groups paused clinical trials of the drug due to safety concerns after the study was published.

The other retracted study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in May 2020, claimed that blood pressure medications were safe to use for people with the virus. 

Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said in his letters Tuesday to both journals that it was “concerning and shameful” they published the misleading studies. The senator demanded the journals produce records related to the publication and retraction of the studies, as well as any communications between the publications and U.S. government employees about the studies.

“It is a largely unreported scandal that these medical journals published studies on COVID-19 based on highly questionable data while ignoring or suppressing potentially helpful information on early treatment,” Johnson told theWashington Examiner. “Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine have failed to be transparent, just like our federal health agencies. Americans should be able to rely on these journals to provide honest and accurate information in order for them to make difficult healthcare decisions. It is beyond unfortunate that they have not always received that.” 

Both studies were based on an early-pandemic dataset developed by Surgisphere that purported to contain detailed medical records on 96,000 COVID-19 patients across six continents, despite the company having just 11 employees on staff, many of whom had little or no scientific or statistical background, according to the Guardian.

Data scientist Peter Ellis told the Guardian in June 2020 that the Surgisphere database was “almost certainly a scam.” 

“There’s no evidence online of [Surgisphere] having any analytical software earlier than a year ago,” Ellis said. “It takes months to get people to even look into joining these databases, it involves network review boards, security people, and management. It just doesn’t happen with a sign-up form and a conversation.” 

The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicineretracted the studies after Surgisphere refused to provide researchers full access to the dataset for an independent review. 

“We shouldn’t have published this,” said New England Journal of Medicine Editor-in-Chief Dr. Eric Rubin after the study was pulled, the New York Times reported. 

Lancet Editor-in-Chief Dr. Richard Horton went a step further and called the retracted hydroxychloroquine study a “fabrication” and ” a monumental fraud.”

New England Journal of Medicine spokeswoman Jennifer Zeis confirmed the journal had received Johnson’s letter and is preparing a response. 

The Lancet did not return a request for comment.