Russian homeopaths strike again (twice) in virology journal — and a skeptic strikes right back

Alexander Pachin

Homeopathy may not cure disease, but it continues to give journal editors fits, particularly at the hands of a group in Russia that has managed to publish a slew of papers on the spurious practice.

The architect of the effort appears to be one Oleg Epstein, whose company, OOO NPF Materia Medica Holding, makes homeopathic products.

Last May, PLOS ONE retracted a paper by Epstein et al titled “Novel approach to activity evaluation for release-active forms of anti-interferon-gamma antibodies based on enzyme-linked immunoassay.”

The lengthy retraction statement includes the following passages:

Following publication of this article [1], concerns were raised about the scientific validity of the study as well as a potential competing interest that was not declared. The PLOS ONE Editors discussed the concerns with the authors and consulted external experts. In light of our editorial assessment and advice received in the expert consultations, we are retracting this article due to concerns about the scientific validity of the research question, study design, and conclusions.

Specifically, we are concerned about the overall design of the study, which aims to detect effects of a reagent diluted to such a degree that the solution is not expected to contain biochemically relevant levels of antibody. The consulted experts also raised concerns about the validity and rigor of the immunoassay system used in the study. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) used was adjusted to give barely detectable signals, which renders the assay particularly susceptible to interference. In light of these issues, we consider that the article does not present sufficient or reliable evidence to support the conclusions.

Other problems include — but don’t stop at — undeclared conflicts of interest.

A skeptic speaks out

The move came after a Russian skeptic, Alexander Panchin, posted comments on the journal’s website that were critical of the paper. Panchin, who works at the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he studies molecular evolution, has been an outspoken foe of his country’s embrace of homeopathic therapies.

But in Russia, homeopathy isn’t universally considered a “pseudoscience.”  In fact, the Russian Ministry of Health has recommended a homeopathy product to treat a form of tick-borne encephalitis, and a similar substance was among the top 20 drugs in the country, with sales of 3.8 billion rubles in 2017 ($62M USD). “This, in my opinion, is dangerous pseudoscience and it is growing into new markets,” says Panchin — similar so-called “release-active” drugs (which Panchin argues is a synonym for homeopathy) are sold in Mexico, Vietnam, Mongolia, Belarus, Ukraine, and other countries.  

Panchin has written about his efforts to unmask Russian homeopathy in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. As he and his co-authors dryly note in their article, titled “Drug discovery today: no molecules required:”

… these innovative “drugs” contain no active molecules and can be considered a new brand of homeopathy. This indicates one of two possibilities: either we are at the brink of a revolution in medicine or that something went wrong with research published in numerous academic journals. We argue that the latter explanation is more likely and that this conclusion has severe implications for the scientific and healthcare enterprises.

The victim this time was Antiviral Research, an Elsevier journal, which has retracted two articles by Epstein and colleagues.

One, from June 2017, was  titled “Efficacy of novel antibody-based drugs against rhinovirus infection: In vitro and in vivo results.”

According to the retraction notice:

This article claimed to demonstrate the antiviral activity of ®Anaferon and ®Ergoferon against rhinovirus infection. This report did not reveal that the products tested for antiviral activity were in fact “homeopathically activated form[s] of antibodies,” as described in US patent 8,535,664 B2, submitted by O. I. Epstein and others.

Homeopathy is an outmoded form of therapy that is not accepted by modern medical practice and is rejected by modern science. If the manuscript submitted to Antiviral Research had identified the nature of the materials being tested as homeopathic products, it would have been rejected. Now that the Editor in Chief is aware of this information, and has discussed the question extensively with other experts, he has decided to formally retract this article.

The other, “Activity of ultra-low doses of antibodies to gamma-interferon against lethal influenza A(H1N1)2009 virus infection in mice,” appeared in 2012. The notice for it states:

This article claimed to demonstrate the antiviral activity of ®Anaferon against influenza virus. This report did not reveal that the products tested for antiviral activity were in fact “homeopathically activated form[s] of antibodies,” as described in US patent 8,535,664 B2, submitted by O. I. Epstein and others.

The notice also includes the disclaimer about homeopathy being “outmoded.”  

Panchin told us that he’s aware of three lawsuits from homeopathy makers against critics, two of which have been brought against the Russian Academy of Sciences after the body published a document saying claims that homeopathy could treat disease did not stand up to scrutiny. Those suits failed, Panchin said.

Then there was the lawsuit by Materia Medica that manufactures and sells “concealed homeopathy” (so called “release-active drugs”) against the Russian newspaper “Troitsky Variant Nauka” and three authors (other members of the commission on pseudoscience) that published an article critical of Materia Medica, it’s “drugs” and it’s founder and ceo Oleg Epstein. Currently this lawsuit is ongoing. There have been no recent developments aside from technical ones.

Panchin added that:

We are currently discussing with editors of a few other journals if they would like to retract any of the “concealed homeopathy” papers. … I am planning to give a talk about these cases at the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity in Hong-Kong this summer.

With reporting by Alison McCook

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One thought on “Russian homeopaths strike again (twice) in virology journal — and a skeptic strikes right back”

  1. Lysenkoism redux. After all, it was Marx who said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.

    Zhores Medvedev (who died last November) and Nikolai Vavilov must be laughing about all this.

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