USDA finds “evidence of manipulation” in vaccine study

VaccineA journal is retracting a paper by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture about a vaccine to protect fish from a deadly bacterial infection, after an investigation found evidence of data manipulation. 

The retraction notice — which appears in the journal Vaccine — cites an investigation by the USDA. It also notes that the authors — who are no longer with the USDA — have not agreed to the retraction.

Here’s the retraction notice, issued on August 20:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief because of evidence of manipulation in Table 4 on page 2710, discovered through an institutional investigation by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Please be informed that the authors have not agreed to the retraction of this article and do not wish to comment. As an international peer-reviewed journal it is our duty to remove the article from further circulation, and to notify the community of this issue.

The 2013 paper, “Development of live attenuated Streptococcus agalactiae as potential vaccines by selecting for resistance to sparfloxacin,” has been cited seven times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

The USDA email address of the Vaccine study’s first author Julia Pridgeon bounced.

We received this statement from the USDA:

A USDA employee raised questions regarding the study, and an internal investigation was conducted resulting in the study findings being withdrawn. The vaccine had never been in larger scale lab trials nor any field trials and was never used outside of a lab or commercially. The authors are no longer with USDA.

In the original study, Pridgeon and Phillip Klesius conclude:

…our results suggest that a polyvalent vaccine consisting of various strains of S. agalactiae might be essential to provide broader protection to Nile tilapia against infections caused by S. agalactiae.

The allegedly manipulated table lists the percentage of fish that survived following treatment with the vaccine. The authors note:

…the polyvalent vaccine provided tilapia statistically significant protection against challenges with 30 parent isolates of S. agalactiae.

Infection with Streptococcus is a serious problem in tilapia, a major source of farmed fish; Americans, for instance, import hundreds of millions of pounds of tilapia each year. Although considered relatively hardy, the fish have fallen prey to some infections, which can be costly, according to this 2011 review in the Pertanika Journal of Tropical Agricultural Science

Although tilapias are more resistant to unfavourable water quality than other freshwater fish, tilapias have been reported to succumb to infection by Streptococcus, which was first observed among the populations of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) farmed in the Shizouka Prefecture in Japan in April 1957. Since then, the disease that is also known as ‘pop eye’ has been reported in many other fish species throughout the world, contributing to an annual loss of approximately USD 150 million.

We’ve reported on Vaccine before — recently, the journal “temporarily” removed a study that suggested a link between a human papillomavirus vaccine and behavioral issues. (Two co-authors of that paper had previously suggested a link between aluminium in vaccines to autism.) That paper — “Behavioral abnormalities in young female mice following administration of aluminum adjuvants and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil” — has now been retracted by the journal:

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the Editor-in-Chief due to serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness of the article. Review by the Editor-in-Chief and evaluation by outside experts, confirmed that the methodology is seriously flawed, and the claims that the article makes are unjustified. As an international peer-reviewed journal we believe it is our duty to withdraw the article from further circulation, and to notify the community of this issue.

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