A group of leading scientists is calling on a journal to retract a paper on the effectiveness of masks, saying the study has “egregious errors” and contains numerous “verifiably false” statements.
The scientists wrote a letter to the journal editors on Thursday, asking them to retract the study immediately “given the scope and severity of the issues we present, and the paper’s outsized and immediate public impact.”
The letter follows heated criticism of two other major coronavirus studies in May, which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. Both papers were retracted amid concerns that a rush to publish coronavirus research had eroded safeguards at prestigious journals.
The study now under fire was published on June 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead author is Mario Molina, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995, with two other scientists, for finding a link between man-made chemicals and depletion of the atmosphere’s ozone layer.
The study claimed that mask-wearing “significantly reduces the number of infections” with the coronavirus and that “other mitigation measures, such as social distancing implemented in the United States, are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public.” It also said that airborne transmission was the primary way the virus spreads.
Experts said the paper’s conclusions were similar to those from others — masks do work — but they objected to the methodology as deeply flawed. The researchers assumed that behaviors changed immediately after policy changes, for example, and the study failed to take into account the seismic changes occurring across societies that may have affected the reported incidence of infection.
“There is evidence from other studies that masks help reduce transmission of Covid-19, but this paper does not add to that evidence,” said Linsey Marr, an expert on airborne transmission of viruses at Virginia Tech. (Dr. Molina was Dr. Marr’s postdoctoral adviser.)
A P.N.A.S. spokeswoman said: “The journal is aware of concerns raised about this article and is looking into the matter.”
Dr. Molina characterized the criticisms as minor and said those calling for retraction “just didn’t understand our paper.”
“We show in the paper itself that we know things are complicated, we know that there’s social distancing, we know that it’s sometimes perfect, sometimes not,” he added.
Many scientists believe that social distancing is a big factor in reducing transmission of the virus, and that airborne transmission, while it may occur, is not the primary means by which the virus spreads.
“Let me be clear: I think masks are an important intervention,” said Bill Hanage, one of the signatories and an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But the paper, as it is, is not in a position to be able to look at mask use compared with other interventions.”
Still, the paper was shared widely on social media and covered by some news outlets. Several dismayed scientists on Twitter swiftly denounced it.
“It’s important to clarify that this paper is of poor quality because it’s making a very sensational claim,” said Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida who signed the call for retraction. “But it has big flaws in the analysis.”
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 16, 2020
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
The scientists’ call for retraction was reported by Buzzfeed News earlier on Thursday.
The paper was submitted under a little-known proviso, called the “contributed” track, by which members of the National Academies are permitted to solicit their own peer reviews and to submit them to P.N.A.S. along with the manuscript. About 20 percent of the papers that P.N.A.S. publishes are handled in this way, according to an analysis in 2016.
“It’s a relic of an old way of doing things,” Dr. Dean said. “It gives an advantage to people who are in the right groups but without the right expertise.”
The public needs to be able to rely on rigorous peer review at journals, she and other experts said, and especially so because of a flood of reports with unvetted claims appearing during the pandemic.
The self-selection of peer reviewers “is obviously completely unhelpful during a period like this,” Dr. Hanage said. There are good reasons journal editors typically choose peer reviewers and keep the identities hidden from a study’s authors, he and others said.
“When you can pick your own peer reviewers, you’re not going to get the kind of rigor that we need in the system,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a founder of Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific fraud and retractions of papers. “Frankly, it’s only a few degrees removed from faked peer review.”
Noah Haber, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University who spearheaded the call for retraction with a few other researchers, said the best outcome would be “a swift retraction, followed preferably by P.N.A.S. reviewing its editorial policies on the contributed submissions track.”