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A study that touted phototherapy as a way to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has been retracted after Elisabeth Bik noted a litany of concerns about the article, from duplications in the figures to the authors’ failure to disclose conflicts of interest.
The article, “Methylene blue photochemical treatment as a reliable SARS-CoV-2 plasma virus inactivation method for blood safety and convalescent plasma therapy for COVID-19,” appeared in mid-April in BMC Infectious Diseases , a Springer Nature title. Unlike many papers rushed into publication during the pandemic, it had been in peer review since the previous April. The authors listed affiliations with various institutions in China, including a company called Boxin (Beijing) Biotechnology Development LTD, which helped fund the study — more on that in a moment.
According to the paper, methylene blue (a versatile medical product that serves as a drug and a dye) when used with something called the “BX-1 AIDS treatment instrument,” could be a wonder therapy for the SARS-CoV-2 infection.
The authors describe BX-1 as:
photochemical technology, which was designed to inactivate HIV-1 virus in plasma. It was proven to be safe and reliable in clinical trials of HIV treatment. In this study, we showed that BX-1 could also be applied to inactivate SARS-CoV-2. During the current outbreak, this technique it has great potential for ensuring the safety of blood transfusions, for plasma transfusion therapy in recovering patients, and for preparing inactivated vaccines.
We could not find any data to back up the claims about BX-1 and HIV.
On May 3, Bik flagged the paper on Twitter.
Let's take a look at this @BMC Infectious Diseases paper claiming that methylene blue can be used to treat COVID-19.
Let's do a proper post-publication peer review.
Because the peer review system completely failed here.https://t.co/is47oZN905
— Elisabeth Bik (@MicrobiomDigest) May 3, 2021
As Bik noted on Twitter and PubPeer, although the authors do state that some of them work at Boxin, which makes BX-1, they declared no competing interests in the article. She also pointed out her suspicions about two of the figures, including one with “curves and error bars [that] look beautiful.”
Readers are alerted that concerns have been raised regarding the reliability of this article. Further editorial action will be taken as appropriate once the investigation into the concerns is complete and all parties have been given an opportunity to respond in full.
Now the article has been retracted, with the following statement:
The editor has retracted this article. Following publication concerns were raised regarding Fig. 1, specifically:
— The Light 0 min panel for Virus Control appears to partially overlap with the Light 0 min panel for 1uM MB No light.
— The Light 0 min panel for 1um MB No light appears to partially overlap with the Light 40 Min panel of the same row, and partially overlap with the Light 0 Min panel for No MB.
In addition, the authors Bin Yu, Jie Zhang, Hao Wu, Xipeng Zhou and Miao Jiang did not appropriately declare a competing interest regarding their affiliation with Boxin (Beijing) Biotechnology Development LTD and its product ‘BX-1 AIDS treatment instrument’ as described in this article.
The editor therefore no longer has confidence in the reliability of the data reported in the article.
Changzhong Jin, Bin Yu, Jie Zhang, Hangping Yao, Fumin Liu, Xiangyun Lu, Linfang Cheng, Miao Jiang and Nanping Wu do not agree to this retraction. Hao Wu and Xipeng Zhou have not responded to any correspondence from the editor about this retraction.
None of the corresponding authors of the paper have responded to our requests for comment.
The paper joins Retraction Watch’s list of retracted COVID-19 articles, which is up to 142.
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