A couple of days ago, I first noticed a new COVID-19 research article with an intriguing title that suggested it would provide evidence that COVID-19 was easily airborne transmitted, hence (I wondered) that face masks and social distancing would be useful means to lower the transmissivity of the virus.
Here is the article, as published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS):
Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19
Reading the paper, I was angered that it was mostly a repetition of earlier claims that the virus was mostly propagated by aerosols and droplets from potentially asymptomatic carriers, and hence masks and lockdowns were effective.
For the key point in this, that masks and lockdowns were effective, they presented (after discarding the much of the data from most states and regions) this chart from New York city:
They had simply drawn two lines across the tops of a couple of peaks each, on a chart that had the face-coverings imposed shortly after the peak, such that one of the lines, across two peaks on the downward slope of a typical rise and fall of an active flu-like virus in a population was sloped more steeply downward than the other line, that was across one peak before, one after, the highest peak.
This proved nothing, other than that the researchers could mine the data they had to find an example where they could draw such lines, with the flatter line before the face-covering date and the more sloped line after.
The article was reviewed, but since the lead contributing author, Nobel laureate Mario J. Molina, was a member of the National Academy of Science, he was able to choose who reviewed the article, due to the fact that the article was submitted to the PNAS via the “contributed track,” which enables National Academy of Sciences members like Molina to submit both a manuscript and suggested peer reviewers.
Fortunately, before I found time to critique this deliberately and deceptively (in my estimation) justification for face masks, social distancing and lockdowns, others with far more medical and chemistry credentials than I have jumped on this article, demanding that PNAS withdraw the article.
Almost immediately, the study received pushback from outside statisticians and epidemiologists who argued that the study is severely flawed by sloppy statistical analyses. A group of critics has now sent a letter (next item below) to the editors of the PNAS asking them to immediately retract the study.
the claims in this study were based on easily falsifiable claims and methodological design flaws
Quoting from the above linked letter: The scale, scope, and intensity of the issues in this paper and the immediacy of the decisions being made based on its claimed conclusions do not make it amenable to either correction or extended debate within the academic literature. Accordingly, we ask that the editorial board of PNAS retract this paper immediately,
My colleagues and I are formally seeking a retraction of the recently published “Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19." This paper suffers from numerous and fundamental errors that undermine the foundation of its conclusions.
Scientists say that the paper by Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina is based on false statements and flawed statistical analysis.
Prof Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine, UEA, said: “In my opinion the study “Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19” by Zhanga and colleagues is deeply flawed and its conclusions highly suspect.
this highly flawed paper provides no evidence on mask effectiveness at the population level