French professor free to harass hydroxychloroquine critics online

Eric Chabriere’s attacks against critics of hydroxychloroquine are seen as a sign of the social-media-induced radicalisation that has occurred during the pandemic

April 27, 2021
 Man sits at laptop computer with image of giant eye on a big screen as a metaphor to show the online behaviour of Eric Chabriere.
Source: Getty

A prominent French scientist who champions the discredited Covid-19 drug hydroxychloroquine has remained in post despite mocking female scientists’ appearances, comparing a Jewish researcher to a concentration camp guard, and launching a string of unfounded allegations against a misconduct investigator.

The online behaviour of Eric Chabriere, a professor of medicine at Aix-Marseille University, is seen as an example of how social media and pandemic polarisation has radically coarsened some scientists’ discourse, particularly in France, where diehard supporters of a controversial research institute relentlessly attack critics online.

Professor Chabriere was a co-author on a now infamous – and since widely criticised – paper in March 2020 that touted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid-19, setting off a global chain of enthusiasm for the drug that ultimately infected then US president Donald Trump.

He also has a position at the University Hospital Institute Méditerranée Infection (IHU), the stronghold of “populist” microbiologist Didier Raoult, who still touts the drug to his vast online following despite disciplinary efforts against him from France’s Infectious Diseases Society.

Most scientists, including the World Health Organisation, now believe there is insufficient evidence to recommend it.

But online, Professor Chabriere encapsulates the siege mentality of the institute, lashing out at its critics in often the crudest of ways.

His most recent target was Elisabeth Bik, a consultant who specialises in spotting image duplication in papers. She has documented a stream of his accusatory and aggressive attacks on Twitter – in one he called her a “dung beetle” – which intensified after Dr Bik publicised a series of allegedly duplicated images in Professor Raoult’s work.

Professor Chabriere has appeared to mock Dr Bik’s appearance by comparing her photo, and that of another French researcher, with a pro-hydroxychloroquine tweeter and joking: “HCQ [hydroxychloroquine] and ivermectin [another drug now touted by Professor Raoult] makes you look good and smart.”

“It’s so childish,” said Dr Bik. “If you’re tweeting as a professor under the name of your institution, and you make remarks about female scientists, that doesn’t really fly any more in 2021.”

He has, without evidence, also repeatedly accused Dr Bik of demanding money from the IHU. Dr Bik said this was probably a reference to her pointing him towards her Patreon account when explaining her sources of income.

“It’s just trying to undermine my credibility,” she said.

After Dr Bik’s findings about duplicate images in Professor Raoult’s work were picked up by a French television station, the IHU responded by saying it “has better things to do than to respond to the defamations of a failed scientist”.

She said she had never experienced such an aggressive, public pushback against her findings, and it appeared that the institute was condoning Professor Chabriere’s online attacks. “They’re not pulling him back,” she said.

Another target was Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, an honorary clinical research fellow at Imperial College London and prominent critic of hydroxychloroquine, who said that Professor Chabriere had bombarded him with more than 100 tweets in recent months.

Professor Chabriere compared Dr Peiffer-Smadja, who is Jewish, to a concentration camp commander in a tweet that now appears to have been deleted.

He also compared his scientific enemies, including Dr Peiffer-Smadja, to a poster of the FBI’s most wanted criminals.

“This is bewildering coming from a professor working in a French university,” Dr Peiffer-Smadja told THE.

A further target of Professor Chabriere was Dominique Costagliola, deputy director of the Paris-based Pierre Louis Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health, who he has peppered with tweets flinging unfounded allegations of financial conflicts of interest and a plot to discredit ivermectin.

Inserm, one of the country’s leading health research networks, reported Professor Chabriere to Twitter and placed Professor Costagliola under “functional protection”, a legal status for public servants who come under threat.

Professor Chabriere did not respond to multiple requests for comment from THE, nor did Aix-Marseille University, the IHU or Professor Raoult.


Print headline: No sanction for scholar’s taunts 

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Reader's comments (2)

The hydroxychloroquine issue has gone completely out of control since Trump recommended it, but presenting it as a "French invention" is inaccurate, as a large number of studies, if not the majority, originate from other countries, such as the US and even Iran. Without condoning any irrational or aggressive behavior such as the one reported, we should beware of any manichaesim in reporting. Dr Bik's actions thread a difficult line between research ethics and vigilante behavior, when they are attacking the entire track record of Prof Raoult. There is a feeling of double standards when comparing to the very limited actions taken after the Lancetgate.
DR and his colleagues are still to only acknowledge the comments made on their papers. The "Lancetgate" paper has been retracted... Where is the double standard? Ultimately, paper retraction is still a proof of good scientific conduct. Attacking "ad hominem" a contradictor is shameful and childish...