Health

HCQ Doc Hits Critic With Lawsuit; Vaccine Billionaires; The ‘Stanford Terribles’

Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

HCQ Doc Sues Critic

Didier Raoult, MD, PhD, the French physician who championed hydroxychloroquine early in the pandemic, has filed a lawsuit against Dutch researcher Elisabeth Bik, PhD, over a critique she posted of his early studies of the drug, The Guardian reports.

Raoult alleges that Bik’s criticisms — she’s an expert in detecting research errors and fraud — amounted to harassment, and that she’s extorting people because she has a Patreon account.

Raoult touted that his March 2020 paper, which was originally published as a preprint, showed hydroxychloroquine worked as a treatment for COVID-19. But Bik’s post pointed out several methodological flaws, including the fact that it wasn’t a randomized controlled trial, it failed to control for confounders, and data were missing for six patients, three of whom got worse and one who died.

Raoult and his colleagues have also slammed Bik in the press, and have released personal information about her, including her address, on social media. The harassment has prompted hundreds of scientists to sign on to an open letter in support of Bik.

Last summer, Raoult was accused by the French Infectious Diseases Society of spreading false information about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine. Disciplinary actions have not yet been reported.

Vaccine Billionaires

The COVID-19 vaccine gold rush minted at least nine new billionaires since the start of the pandemic, Insider reports.

They’re mostly executives and scientists from companies involved in vaccine development and production, including Moderna, BioNTech, and CanSino Biologics, and their new wealth is largely due to skyrocketing company stock prices.

The nine new billionaires are:

  • Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, now worth $4.3 billion
  • Ugur Sahin, MD, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, now worth $4 billion
  • Timothy Springer, founding investor of Moderna, now worth $2.2 billion
  • Noubar Afeyan, chairman of Moderna, now worth $1.9 billion
  • Juan Lopez-Belmonte, chair of a Spanish biotech that manufactures the Moderna vaccine, now worth $1.8 billion
  • Robert Langer, ScD, MIT professor and founding investor in Moderna, now worth $1.6 billion
  • Zhu Tao, PhD, co-founder of CanSino, now worth $1.3 billion
  • Qiu Dongxu, PhD, co-founder of CanSino, now worth $1.2 billion
  • Mao Huinhoa, co-founder of CanSino, now worth $1 billion

The combined $19 billion net worth of these nine executives is enough to vaccinate 776 million people in low-income countries, according to the report by People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of health and human rights groups including Oxfam, Global Justice Now, and UNAIDS.

The ‘Stanford Terribles’

Stanford had to walk a fine line between treading on academic freedom and upholding public health consensus with a number of its experts last year, and STAT has profiled one of them.

Michael Levitt, PhD, DSc, is a biophysicist and a 2013 Nobel Prize winner, for computer programming work he did in his 20s (he’s in his 70s now) regarding protein folding. He has no experience in infectious disease, but he became an advisor to government officials during the pandemic — Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among them. He also took to social media, often with provocative (and ultimately incorrect) ideas, and signed onto the controversial Great Barrington Declaration.

Levitt told STAT that he and a handful of other researchers became known as the “Stanford Terribles.” That includes John Ioannidis, MD, PhD, who took heat for failing to disclose conflicts of interest around a paper on COVID fatality rates, Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, one of the key proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration, and Scott Atlas, MD, the radiologist who became the de facto medical lead of the Trump administration coronavirus response.

While Stanford eventually distanced itself from Atlas’ claims, it took a more neutral approach to the others, potentially trying to avoid criticism about restrictions on academic freedom. But not all Stanford colleagues agreed with that strategy.

Julie Parsonnet, MD, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Stanford, said a line should be drawn when experts use their position inappropriately. She used astrophysics as a metaphor: “If I came out and I stood in front of a big S for Stanford and said, as a Stanford faculty member, ‘the Big Bang never happened,’ I think I should be chastised by my institution for that.”

  • Kristina Fiore leads MedPage’s enterprise & investigative reporting team. She’s been a medical journalist for more than a decade and her work has been recognized by Barlett & Steele, AHCJ, SABEW, and others. Send story tips to [email protected] Follow

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