Pseudo-sciences

Harald Walach, the researcher contributing misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic

The winner of a satirical award for pseudo-science managed to get two papers published in medical journals claiming that masks are dangerous for children and that vaccines kill nearly as many people as they save

The German researcher Harald Walach.
The German researcher Harald Walach.Anja Jahn

The scientific community is still wondering how it happened. Harald Walach, a German researcher who defends homeopathy and other pseudo-sciences, last June managed to publish two high-impact papers in medical journals stating that Covid-19 vaccines cause nearly as many deaths as they prevent, and also that face masks are dangerous for children.

Both articles are based on sloppy calculations and their conclusions are completely erroneous. Both publications, Vaccines and JAMA Pediatrics, retracted in a matter of days. Poland’s Poznan University of Medical Sciences (PUMS), where Walach was working, announced on Twitter that “Dr. Walach’s affiliation with PUMS was now terminated.”

The German doctor Edzard Ernst, considered a scourge of pseudo-sciences, recently asked a question on his blog that many others are asking themselves: “Is Professor Harald Walach incompetent or dishonest?”

Walach, a 64-year-old psychologist without any training in virus or vaccines, can claim an extravagant career. One of his latest pieces of research, based on a survey of 10 members of the Catholic faith, concludes that reciting the Holy Rosary “may generate health benefits.” Earlier studies of his lent credence to alleged cases of distance healing, and he has also posited theories using obscure concepts borrowed from quantum physics to try to explain parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy. In 2012, Walach was named Pseudo-Scientist of the Year by Austria’s Society for Critical Thinking.

Despite this resume, on June 24 of this year Walach got a paper published in Vaccines stating that Covid-19 vaccines kill two people for every three that they save. Several members of the editorial board, such as the Austrian virologist Florian Krammer and the British immunologist Katie Ewer, announced their resignation when they learned about the published paper, which was immediately disseminated by anti-vaccine movements and pandemic denialists. The publication retracted the study on July 2, after finding that Walach had based his calculations on a database from the Netherlands that included all health problems observed after vaccination, even if they had nothing to do with the inoculations. Helen Petousis Harris, a vaccinologist from New Zealand who resigned from the editorial board and returned after the retraction, summed it up like this: “Garbage went in, got statistically abused, and what came out the end was nonsense.”

Walach, a 64-year-old psychologist without any training in virus or vaccines, can claim an extravagant career

Harald Walach defends himself. “I am not an anti-vaccine activist. I am a scientist,” he says, arguing that support from the anti-vaccine movement does not invalidate his results. He also suggests that he is a victim of “political correctness.” Walach insists that his calculations are correct, despite the fact that 3.7 billion doses have been administered globally and his catastrophic predictions have not come to pass. On the contrary, vaccines have drastically reduced deaths.

How could such misleading studies find their way into respectable scientific journals? Vaccines is published by MDPI, a business giant founded by the Chinese chemist Shu-Kun Lin that has over 330 scientific magazines that are free to access. In 2018, 10 members of a sister publication, Nutrients, resigned after claiming that MDPI was pressuring them to accept low-quality studies. Authors have to pay a fee to get published, around €1,500 in the case of Nutrients, so there is a powerful incentive to publish as much as possible, a fact that was discussed at the time by Science magazine. MDPI, which is based in Basel, Switzerland, denied such pressure.

Eva Méndez, an expert in open science at Carlos III University in Madrid, points out the shortcomings of the current scientific system. The European Commission and other international institutions are encouraging free citizen access to the results of scientific research, but this open science “has generated opportunistic editorial practices and spawned fraudulent magazines, as well as others that are walking a fine line: they are not quite fraudulent but have developed predatory behavior, fed by researchers’ thirst to be published,” she notes. Méndez explains that today’s scientific system is based on “the irrational and anachronistic imperative of publish or die,” since the success of an academic career depends on the number of published studies. “Open science involves returning science to researchers, and abandoning commercial interests posing as open science.”

The Spanish biotechnologist Eduardo Gómez Casado, of the National Institute of Agrarian and Food Research and Technology (INIA), is a member of the editorial board of Vaccines, a position that he gets no money for. “The process of editorial review at Vaccines is serious and controlled,” he says. “I think that what happened with this study is an exception.” The head of MDPI’s ethics committee, Damaris Critchlow, feels that the board has acted swiftly and notes that the individual responsible for publishing the study was the psychologist Ralph DiClemente, of New York University (NYU).

On June 30, Walach published another paper in JAMA Pediatrics claiming that children with face masks were being exposed to unacceptable levels of CO₂, based on a study of 45 kids. The magazine, published by the American Medical Association, retracted the article on July 16 after expressing doubts about the method and devices used by Walach, who also lacks training in this field. The psychologist insists that it is the others who are wrong. But the American Academy of Pediatrics on July 18 recommended face masks for all schoolchildren over the age of two.

English version by Susana Urra.

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