Journal publisher retracted a study claiming poison oak could cure itching. Well done.

None of these plants will cure itching. 
Today I want to tell a positive story, where a science journal did the right thing.

I’ve written a lot over the years about bad science. A particular gripe of mine is when bogus scientific results, sometimes fraudulent, sometimes just sloppy, manage to sneak into the peer-reviewed scientific literature. This happens all too often, especially as the number of papers published each year has grown. These bad papers are then used by fraudsters and charlatans (and sometimes by innocent people who just don’t have the expertise to understand) to “prove” an unscientific claim.

Fortunately, a growing number of journals–the better ones, in general–are showing more concern than in the past, and taking actions (sometimes) to retract papers, even over the objections of the authors.

Before I get to the good news, a reminder about the most notorious scientific paper in recent memory: Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study in The Lancet, published in 1998, which claimed to find a link between vaccines and autism. The Lancet, to its everlasting shame, failed to retract the article until 2010, despite an avalanche of evidence that began appearing in 2002. Ten of the original 13 authors even published their own “Retraction of an Interpretation” in 2004, but The Lancet still refused to retract unless all the authors agreed. Wakefield, who was already leading the anti-vaccine movement and is now adored by anti-vaxxers, refused.

That article has probably contributed indirectly to the deaths of thousands of people from vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. And given what we knew about it by 2002, The Lancet had no excuse for delaying retraction until 12 years after publication.

But I digress. Today I want to highlight an article whose retraction I called for a few years ago, one that the journal, Scientific Reports (published by Nature Publishing Group) did indeed retract, about 9 months later.

The paper I called out was a study that claimed that an extract of poison oak can be used to treat pain. If that sounds kind of ridiculous, that’s because it is. The actual paper sounded very science-y, as I pointed out in my original column. It was titled “Ultra-diluted Toxicodendron pubescens attenuates pro-inflammatory cytokines and ROS-mediated neuropathic pain in rats.”

Toxicodendron pubescens, in case you’re wondering, is poison oak. It’s not a tree and it has nothing to do with oaks–it’s a cousin of poison ivy, and both plants contain oils that can cause extreme itching and painful rashes on contact.

How on earth could poison oak be used to treat pain? Well, it can’t. The paper was actually about a homeopathic treatment. One of the core tenets of homeopathy is that “like cures like,” as long as you dilute it sufficiently. So the poison oak paper started with the premise that since poison oak causes pain and itching, you can also use it, after you dilute it, to treat pain and itching!

Homeopathy, as I’ve written before, is a highly implausible and easily disprovable set of beliefs about medicine. I use the word “belief” intentionally here, because homeopathy really has no claim to be a type of medicine, or even a hypothesis. It’s just a 200-year-old collection of beliefs that turned out, long ago, to be wrong.

If this sounds absurd, well, selling these products is a highly profitable business. For example, check out Boericke & Tafel’s Oral Ivy Liquid ($15 for a 1-ounce bottle on, a homeopathic product that is made from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. It claims to be “for the prevention and temporary relief of contact dermatitis associated with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac.” What’s in it? Poison oak, at very low levels. (Actually this product isn’t really diluted to homeopathic levels: the packaging says it contains 0.02g of poison oak in each drop. So it might actually cause an allergic reaction–I’d stay far away from this stuff.)

Back to the study: in the paper, the authors diluted a preparation of poison oak down to levels as low as 10-30, a common practice in homeopathy. The problem is, at that level of dilution, not even a single molecule of the original substance would remain. There’s simply no possibility that such a dilution could have any therapeutic benefit, but somehow they found an effect. Hmm.

A number of scientists wrote to the journal complaining that this result was extremely implausible, and that the experiments didn’t support the conclusions. To their credit, the journal editors took the complaints seriously and investigated. The retraction notice (read it here) pointed out another major problem as well: some of the figures were duplicates! Each figure is supposed to represent a different experiment, so duplication is a big problem, added to the fundamental implausibility of the study.

As is often the case when fraud is detected, the authors did not agree with the retraction.

When I wrote my column complaining about this study, I said the “the right thing to do would be to retract this paper, because its results are simply not valid. We'll see if that happens.” Well, about 9 months later, that’s exactly what happened.

A few years ago, I was in direct contact with the Editors-in-Chief at both Scientific Reports and PLoS ONE (about different papers than the one I’m discussing above), and they expressed genuine concern about fraudulent research, as well as a determination to do better at rooting it out. When journals do the right thing, we should applaud them. So here’s to Scientific Reports, who got it right this time.

USAID is pouring $125 million into collecting dangerous viruses in the wild. What could possibly go wrong?


Bushmeat market in Africa. Photo by Alexandra
Mannerings / BBC, 2014.

I just learned that the US Agency for International Development, USAID, is pouring $125 million into an effort to seek out novel viruses in remote areas of the world. This is pretty much exactly what many scientists, including me, have been warning against for years.

How did I miss this? It was announced last October, along with articles about how excited Washington State University was to lead the project, and how pleased the University of Washington was to go out and hunt down animals that were carrying dangerous new viruses.

In any case, I know about it now, and I’m joining the voices (here and here, for example) that are warning that this is a truly terrible idea.

The USAID’s announcement seems utterly oblivious to the enormous dangers posed by this program. Their own headline says they want to find viruses that could cause pandemics! The program, called DEEP VZN (”deep vision,” get it?) is funding scientists in the US and in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to venture (”deep”) into unpopulated areas of the jungle, and to find animals carrying viruses that might infect humans. They’re particularly interested in viruses that could cause the next pandemic.

What could go wrong? Oh nothing, says USAID and the scientists who are happily taking the $125 million in funding. They’ll be super careful! So we should all be pleased with how the government is preparing for the next pandemic.

Uh, no. As I wrote last year:

It’s also time to ask, very critically, whether anyone should be venturing out into remote areas to collect animals that are infected with possible pandemic-causing microbes, and bringing those animals [or just the viruses] back to densely populated areas. Rather than preventing pandemics, these activities are more likely to cause them.

The only tiny nod to risk in the USAID announcement is that they will “safely discover and understand new viruses from animals at high risk locations” (emphasis mine). They make no mention of how they will guarantee this is safe–because they simply can’t guarantee any such thing. 

Oh wait, isn’t this how some people think the Covid-19 pandemic started? Because humans were collecting bats from remote caves? Oh, but perhaps that was different, because some of those bats were being collected for food, and the people collecting them weren’t careful enough.

Never mind that the debate about whether Covid-19 was caused by a lab leak has never been fully resolved. And never mind that the debate itself has made it clear that lab leaks happen all too often, and that it’s clearly possible that a lab leak could cause a pandemic.

(For more on the risks of lab leaks, see my previous articles, from March 2022, June 2021, October 2021, or January 2015 (when the threat was from influenza), or this New Yorker story from 2021.)

The details of DEEP VZN are even more alarming: they plan to collect over 800,000 samples from animals in the wild, and they hope (!) to discover 8,000 to 12,000 new viruses, any one of which might have the potential to start a worldwide pandemic. They’ll focus especially on coronaviruses (the family that includes the Covid-19 virus), Ebola-like viruses, and a group called paramyxoviruses.

Great, so maybe they’ll cause a novel Ebola outbreak too. I’m feeling very comforted now!

I have to note here that USAID, the funder for DEEP VZN, also funded EcoHealth Alliance to collect coronaviruses from bats in China, and EcoHealth partnered with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in that project. As I and many others have written over the past two years, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a possible source, through a hypothesized lab leak, of the Covid-19 pandemic. We may never know if WIV was involved, because China shut down all access to the lab early in the pandemic.

But it seems USAID didn’t learn any lessons at all from the many publicly expressed concerns about whether it was wise to go into caves in remote areas of China and collect coronaviruses from bats. On the contrary: with DEEP VZN, they are doubling down.

Why do USAID and the scientists at Washington State and UW think this is a good idea? Well, here the story is very familiar. They are making the same pie-in-the-sky claims we’ve been hearing for years: “The hope is that this improved understanding will lead to prevention of future pandemics,” said a UW scientist in their press release. Or “to make sure the world is better prepared for these infectious disease events, we need to be ready” according to a Washington State scientist.

I and others have pointed out the flaws in these claim before, but it’s worth re-stating a few of them:

  1. First, there’s not a shred of evidence that collecting these viruses will help prevent a pandemic, and we now have evidence providing the opposite. Scientists have been collecting coronaviruses since the first SARS outbreak, in 2003, and that work didn’t prevent the Covid-19 pandemic, even though both outbreaks were caused by coronaviruses.
  2. Second, the act of going into remote areas and looking for viruses is highly likely to bring deadly new viruses back into human cities, creating opportunities for a lab leak that could easily cause a new pandemic. And despite some protests to the contrary, lab leaks can and do happen, even from the most secure facilities.
  3. Third, having viruses in labs, even if they’re secure, will do little to help anyone design vaccines against future pandemic viruses. As expert virologists have pointed out, we simply can’t predict what viruses will cause the next pandemic: there are far too many of them, among other reasons.

There’s one more threat I have to mention. DEEP VZN proudly proclaims that it’s going to make all of its data public, including the genome sequences of the viruses that it collects. This strategy blithely ignores the fact that it’s now possible for hostile actors to use these sequences to create deadly new bioweapons. An MIT engineer estimates that some 30,000 people around the world already have this capability. Even if that is a bit alarmist (and I tend to think it is), it’s not so far-fetched to believe that generating all of these sequences greatly increases the risk that someone will create a rogue virus.

If USAID wants to help prevent the next pandemic, there are far, far better ways to spend $125 million of taxpayer money. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Use the money to reduce the consumption of “bushmeat” in countries where this is still practiced. This could be done in many ways, such as training people in better farming methods, or even just providing food directly.
  2. Put a halt to the use of wild animals for ineffective “traditional” medicines, which don’t cure anything and which are one of the main incentives for hunting exotic animals. This would have the additional benefit of saving a number of animal species from extinction.
  3. Use the money to develop faster ways to produce and deliver vaccines, so we don’t have to wait months or years from the time a pathogen starts spreading until we have a vaccine.

Look, I know that some scientists are very excited about going out and finding new viruses, and some of them truly believe this will help prevent future pandemics. But they’ve been saying this for years, and the evidence is now overwhelming that this is a pipe dream. Sending humans out into the wild to gather viruses that would otherwise never make their way into population centers is just a terribly dangerous plan.

Or let’s put this another way: if you discovered that a research facility in your home town were working with hundreds of deadly viruses, would you have any concerns? Any at all? I know I would.