Lancet editor blasts government for allowing thousands of needless coronavirus deaths

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The Lancet


The Lancet’s editor has blasted the Government for allowing thousands  of needless coronavirus deaths and attacked Sage scientists for being the ‘PR wing’.

Dr Richard Horton, who has been editor-in-chief of the prestigious Lancet for 25 years, said people have died as a result of ‘appalling misjudgements’.

He said the Government was ‘glaringly unprepared’ for a pandemic – which has so far killed at least 51,000 people in the UK – and ignored warnings from the World Health Organization.  

Dr Horton recently became involved with a furious row with Downing Street, accusing officials of ‘deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing COVID-19 disinformation campaign’.  

The medical journal has also become embroiled in a political point-scoring row after publishing an ‘anti-Trump’ study that had repercussions globally.

Covid-19 treatment trials of the drug hydroxychloroquine, championed by Donald Trump, were halted because the study said it increased the risk of death.

But the ‘scandalous’ study has now been retracted due to failings in its methods, throwing the Lancet’s editorial standards into question.

The Lancet’s editor has blasted the Government for allowing thousands of needless coronavirus deaths and attacks Sage scientists for being the ‘PR wing’

Dr Horton recently became involved with a furious row with Downing Street, accusing officials of 'deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing COVID-19 disinformation campaign'. He furiously rejected claims that he played down the threat of the virus, and instead said he had sounded the alarm on multiple occasions

Dr Horton recently became involved with a furious row with Downing Street, accusing officials of ‘deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing COVID-19 disinformation campaign’. He furiously rejected claims that he played down the threat of the virus, and instead said he had sounded the alarm on multiple occasions

Dr Horton has publicly criticised the UK Government over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic for weeks.

His book, The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again, describes the management of the crisis as the greatest science policy failure of a generation. 

The Department of Health’s official death toll for Covid-19 stands at 41,622. But data collated by the Office for National Statistics says the death toll has passed 51,000. 

According to The Observer, Dr Horton describes the UK’s response to the emergence of the Covid-19 virus as ‘slow, complacent and flat-footed’, a reaction that show the government was ‘glaringly unprepared’ for the pandemic.

He attacks Public Health England (PHE) for not taking proper note of the World Health Organization’s public health emergency warning about the disease.

And he ridicules the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) for becoming ‘the public relations wing of a government that had failed its people’.

Dr Horton is suggesting Sage is not independent, after the Government faced weeks of criticism over a perceived lack of transparency around members of Sage and what was discussed at their meetings. 

A list of Sage members was published online after concerns grew that political leniency would be dictating coronavirus policy, rather than scientific evidence.

DR HORTON’S CLASH WITH DOWNING STREET: A TIMELINE 

January 24: Dr Horton tweeted: ‘A call for caution please. Media are escalating anxiety by talking of a “killer virus” + “growing fears”. In truth, from what we currently know, 2019-nCoV has moderate transmissibility and relatively low pathogenicity. THere is no reason to fester panic with exaggerated language.’

January 24-27: Dr Horton published a series of five academic papers a few days before the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed in the UK that first described the novel coronavirus in detail. 

On January 25, Dr Horton ‘drew attention to the issue of ICU capacity and asked why there was no discussion of this urgent clinical challenge’.

And on January 26, he tweeted that ‘the needle is moving towards the affirmative’ to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

April 19: A newspaper article in The Sunday Times accused Boris Johnson of ‘sleepwalking into disaster’ in the early stages of the pandemic. 

Its long list of allegations included that the Government had brushed aside the threat of the virus despite an alarming study published in Dr Horton’s The Lancet on January 24.  

The Chinese study ‘assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50million people’.  

In response, Downing Street said: ‘The editor of the Lancet, on exactly the same day – 23 January – called for “caution” and accused the media of ‘escalating anxiety by talking of a “killer virus” and “growing fears”.’

April 20: Dr Horton has stepped in to point out that, on numerous occasions, he pointed to evidence a pandemic was imminent – one which would cripple the UK. In his view, No 10 are trying to ‘rewrite history’ in their rebuttal of the Sunday Times article while defending the actions they took.

‘Individually, they’re great people, but the system was a catastrophic failure,’ he said.

Dr Horton said leaders will need to acknowledge their mistakes in order to save their reputation, suggesting this starts with the chief scientific officer (CHA), Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer (CMO), Professor Chris Whitty.

He said they should admit it was ‘very clear that the signals were missed from January’. 

It comes amid fears the CHA and CMO are prepared to quit over disagreements with Government policies on the two-metre social distancing rules. 

Scientists are thought to largely oppose reducing the distance in fear of a second spike in cases – but today Chancellor Rishi Sunak said it will be up to ministers to decide. 

Echoing the thoughts of dozens of other experts, Dr Horton questioned why it took so long to go into lockdown considering the warnings from across the world.

On numerous occasions, he pointed to evidence a pandemic was imminent – one which would cripple the UK. 

Dr Horton published a series of five academic papers in January, a few days before the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed in the UK, that first described the novel coronavirus in detail. 

‘All of the things that have happened in the last three months, they’re all in those five papers,’ he claimed.

These included a study of a family in China who were infected with the virus, indicating it can spread between humans, and the first breakdown of characteristics of people sick with the disease COVID-19.

On January 25, Dr Horton ‘drew attention to the issue of ICU capacity and asked why there was no discussion of this urgent clinical challenge’.

And on January 26, he tweeted that ‘the needle is moving towards the affirmative’ to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

A newspaper article in the Sunday Times on April 19 accused the Government of brushing aside the threat of the virus despite an alarming study published in Dr Horton’s The Lancet on January 24.

The same day, Health Secretary Matt Hancock ‘breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was ‘low’.’ 

In response, Downing Street said there was no scientific consensus at the time that the coronavirus would cause a pandemic. 

It also said Dr Horton himself called for ‘caution’ and accused the media of ‘escalating anxiety by talking of a ‘killer virus’ and ‘growing fears’.    

But Dr Horton profusely denied Downing Street’s claim that there was a lack of scientific consensus.

In his view, No10 is trying to ‘rewrite history’ in their rebuttal of the Sunday Times article.

Dr Horton published a series of five academic papers in January, a few days before the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed in the UK, that first described the novel coronavirus in detail

Dr Horton published a series of five academic papers in January, a few days before the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed in the UK, that first described the novel coronavirus in detail

He admitted: ‘My Jan 24 tweet called for caution in UK media reporting’ – in which he said there was ‘no reason to foster panic’ about the virus.

‘It was followed by a series of tweets drawing attention to the dangers of this new disease.’ 

The Lancet’s monthly release usually covers topics such as diabetes and HIV, but has recently been pushing out research on Covid-19.

Recently it had to retract a medical study which warned against using a drug championed by Donald Trump. 

The study, published on May 22, claimed hydroxychloroquine raised the risk of death from the coronavirus by up to 45 per cent. 

And Covid-19 patients taking the drug were up to five times more likely to develop a life-threatening arrhythmia – a known complication.  

The shock findings halted global trials of the promising drug hydroxychloroquine, once seen as a leading contender for a cure for Covid-19. 

But after admitting there were ‘serious questions’ that need to be answered about the data, the Lancet retracted the study on June 4.

The research was blighted by criticism of sloppy data by the small private company which conducted the analysis – Surgisphere.

The paper’s lead author Dr Mandeep Mehra of Harvard Medical School said in a recent interview the study was sparked by ‘amazement’ at how governments were touting the drug.

He told FranceSoir: ‘We were amazed at the widespread use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine around the world and in particular the way government agencies were pushing for it without much evidence.’

Little is known of Dr Mehra’s political alliances, but he has ‘liked’ tweets blaming ‘political leaders’ for pushing hydroxychloroquine. 

Therefore, the paper’s claim that hydroxychloroquine increases the risk of death in Covid-19 sparked concern the findings were used to undermine the US president.

Trump himself had been taking the drug and hailed it a ‘game-changer’ in the war on coronavirus.   

Dr Carlos Chaccour, an infectious disease expert at the Barcelona Institute of Global Science, believes the paper muddied the scientific discourse and has been used by rivals to score political points.

‘There was huge political polarisation about hydroxychloroquine, politics became mixed in with policy,’ he told the Guardian.

‘So there’s people defending hydroxychloroquine because they like Donald Trump, and people opposing it because they don’t like Donald Trump.’

As for the trials that were stopped in response to the findings, scientists said the retraction was too late and that the ‘harm was already done’, as the race for a cure to halt the virus that has ravaged the world continues.

THE STUDY IN THE LANCET THAT STOPPED GLOBAL TRIALS  

The research of nearly 100,000 Covid-19 patients, published in prestigious medical journal The Lancet, cast doubt over the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of Covid-19.

As well as uncovering hydroxychloroquine had no benefit for coronavirus patients, results showed it raised the risk of death by up to 45 per cent.

And Covid-19 patients taking the drug were up to five times more likely to develop a life-threatening arrhythmia – a known complication.

Experts at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, analysed data from 96,032 hospitalised Covid-19 patients spanning six continents.

Around 5,000 of the infected were either given hydroxychloroquine or its derivative chloroquine.

Another 10,000 were given hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine alongside two other promising drugs, antibiotics azithromycin or clarithromycin.

Data from those four groups was then compared against a control sample of 81,000 Covid-19 patients, who were given other medications. 

The findings prompted the UK’s drugs watchdog to temporarily suspend two major Oxford University clinical trials of the antimalarial. 

The World Health Organization also pulled the plug on its SOLIDARITY study, on the back of the worrying results.

However, more than 120 top scientists and doctors criticised the study in an open letter to the journal, flagging 10 major flaws.

The signatories of the letter said the study did not mention the countries or hospitals that contributed to the data source, meaning they cannot be fact checked. 

They wrote: ‘The authors have not adhered to standard practices in the machine learning and statistics community. They have not released their code or data.

‘There was no ethics review… There was no mention of the countries or hospitals that contributed to the data source and no acknowledgments to their contributions.’

The scientists nodded towards the fact the Lancet paper included data from more Covid-19 deaths in Australia that existed at the time. 

The research became the subject of an outside review. But Surgisphere – founded by study co-author, Dr Sapan Desai refused to transfer its data to the auditors, citing patient privacy. As a result, the review was cut short and the study was retracted.

‘We can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources,’ the three authors of the paper wrote to The Lancet in their retraction on June 4. 



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