German ‘star virologist’ targeted in tabloid campaign

Using critical comments about a preprint, Bild launched a front-page attack on Christian Drosten. Scientists fear this will chill academic discussion of preliminary results

June 2, 2020
Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin's Charite hospital, is pictured after a press conference in Berlin on March 26, 2020, to comment the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country.
Source: Getty
Target: Christian Drosten has helped to steer Germany’s pandemic response

Germany’s most prominent coronavirus expert has been subject to a series of stinging attacks by the country’s most-read newspaper in a controversy that some believe could make scientists afraid to publicly comment on one another’s work.

In a front-page story, Bild accused Christian Drosten, a virologist who has advised Angela Merkel on Germany’s pandemic response, of using “questionable methods” and reaching “grossly incorrect” conclusions in a study on the role of children in coronavirus transmission – and claimed that the research was responsible for shutting schools.

The tabloid quoted critical comments made by other scientists about Professor Drosten’s paper, which was released as a preprint at the end of April.

The study warns that children “may be as infectious as adults” and cautions against an “unlimited reopening of schools and kindergartens in the present situation” − a critical political issue in Germany and elsewhere as coronavirus lockdowns are eased.

But many of the scientists quoted say the newspaper used their public comments without speaking to them and have distanced themselves from Bild’s articles.

The row, which has roiled the German media for days, “makes open discourse harder”, said Christoph Rothe, a professor of economics at the University of Mannheim, who said the newspaper had quoted one of his tweets discussing the preprint without speaking to him.

The risk is that routine discussion about preprints among scientists is weaponised by tabloid newspapers as an “attack on the general integrity” of scientists such as Professor Drosten, he said.

Much of the criticism of the Drosten group’s paper has focused on its statistical methods, with two British statisticians calling for it to be withdrawn. Yet researchers have been horrified at how their critiques have been used by Bild to attack Professor Drosten.

Professor Rothe said his had been a “very modest claim” that the Drosten group “could have done the statistical analysis a bit better”. Doing so might have given them a different numerical result but would not have had a huge impact on their conclusions, he said.

For some in Germany, Professor Drosten has become one of the faces of the country’s lockdown measures – and along with politicians, he has received death threats, including vials of fluid labelled as containing coronavirus. But he has also won a huge public following for his podcast explaining the latest coronavirus research.

The controversy exploded on 25 May after Professor Drosten pre-empted the article by tweeting the email he had received from Bild, demanding answers to criticisms from scientists and giving him just one hour to respond. “I have better things to do,” he tweeted.

Following a backlash against the article, the journalist who wrote it responded that the scientists he had quoted were within their rights to distance themselves from the story – but Bild was simply repeating public criticisms.

The attempt to discredit a scientist using criticisms of a preprint is unprecedented in Germany, said Volker Stollorz, chief editor of Germany’s Science Media Center. “It looks more like a campaign [against Professor Drosten] than a scientific debate.”

The furore has made scientists realise that their internal discussions about preprints are now happening in the open, he said. “The heart of the scientific machine is visible to anyone. Anyone who wants to do harm, can do harm,” he added.

During the pandemic, academics have turned to preprint servers to rapidly disseminate findings about coronavirus without waiting for peer review. Several of the biggest repositories now carry warnings to journalists that preprints have not been through peer review and should not be reported as established information.

However, “the public isn’t necessarily aware that this is how it works, and unfortunately some newspapers don’t feel like reporting it”, said Professor Rothe.

One answer might be to eschew discussion in preprints and just report the data, said Mr Stollorz.

Leonhard Held, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Zurich and another scientist whose critique of the paper was quoted by Bild, argued that the solution lay in registered reports. “Science should react by being more open,” he said.

The idea is to debate experimental design and statistical methods with the rest of the scientific community before, not after, data are gathered and conclusions are drawn, he said.

“That’s a way to avoid problems like this one,” he said. “There would be much less controversy.”

Although Professor Held stressed that he did not know the disciplinary make-up of the Drosten group, he said it was in general important to “make sure you don’t have just your own discipline on board if you write an article that has far-reaching conclusions”.

“A virologist should leave the statistics to a statistician,” he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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