What it takes to correct the record: Autopsy of a COVID-19 corrigendum

Richard Jones

We’ve been keeping track of retracted coronavirus papers, but what about corrections? Here’s a guest post from Richard Jones of Cardiff University about a paper that earned widespread media coverage but turned out to be wrong.

According to our best knowledge, this is the first report on COVID-19 infection and death among medical personnel in a Forensic Medicine unit.

So ended a letter from Thailand to the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, accepted on 9th April 2020 within 3 days of receipt, and published as an ubiquitous “Pre-Proof.” 

The authors of that letter stated that there had been only two COVID-19 patients amongst medical personnel in Thailand at that time, one of whom was a “forensic medicine professional” working in Bangkok. 

Whilst the risk of infection from contact with the dead was thought to be low, sensible infection control measures were described, including the need for personal protective equipment (PPE). The impression given to the reader of the letter, though, was that a forensic medical professional had now died from COVID-19, and that the source was a contaminated body.

Unsurprisingly, this story was rapidly picked up by the online and mainstream media, including BuzzFeed News on the 13th April, prompting a health policy expert from the University of New Haven, Connecticut, USA, to articulate the concern now raised in the minds of all working in the fields of forensic medicine and pathology:

Autopsies and subsequent investigations present real risks for coroners to acquire COVID-19 […].

The Daily Mail Online followed on the 14th April with this sensational article (now shared 31,000 times):

First case of a DEAD patient passing on coronavirus is reported in Thailand after medical examiner is infected

— The forensic worker died after being infected in Bangkok, researchers believe

— Scientists say it is the first such case reported anywhere in the world 

— Health officials say it is not yet fully understood exactly how the virus spreads

That a contaminated dead body was the source of the fatal infection was clear:

A medical examiner in Thailand died after catching coronavirus from a dead patient, scientists suspect.

Naturally, pathologists and others working with the dead became anxious for their health. Things started to unravel, however, when a Bangkok journalist contacted BuzzFeed News, raising concerns about the accuracy of the letter’s author’s claims. 

When asked for their comments on those concerns, the Journal’s publisher, Elsevier apparently was silent. The Journal’s editor, Professor Tim Thompson, told BuzzFeed News:

It’s important to note that the letter doesn’t say that the deceased caught COVID from a corpse, just that it’s the first forensic practitioner to die.

A ‘corrigendum’ was then made available online on 23rd April 2020; astonishingly, the forensic medical professional had not died at all. The authors explained that they “did not mean to suggest that the victim had died,” and they “do not know for sure and cannot scientifically confirm that the virus moved from the dead body.”

To their credit, BuzzFeed News published a follow-up story and also corrected their original story to reflect this development. The impact of the original letter though was significant: 

It was a groundbreaking statement from two scientists that captured the world’s attention, as experts scramble to understand how the coronavirus behaves and spreads among humans and animals.

In the rush to publish anything COVID-19-related, and a worldwide audience desperate for answers, the journal’s decision not to retract this letter, and rely instead on a disingenuous, and poorly-worded correction, is inexcusable. As of 22nd May 2020 the corrigendum remains “In-Press,” but the original letter is the Journal’s most downloaded article in the last 90 days.

Perhaps this tells us where the publisher’s priorities lie?

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One thought on “What it takes to correct the record: Autopsy of a COVID-19 corrigendum”

  1. Here is a full text of the paper , for reference. The last sentence reads disconnected from the rest of the text.

    Dear Editor,
    COVID-19 is a new and emerging disease and its origin is in the Republic of China.1 In 2020, the disease spread rapidly worldwide resulting in it being classified as a pandemic.2 This new disease is a new challenge for the medical community since during the COVID-19 outbreak, medical personnel might get infected. Within Forensic Medicine Units, there has been no reported case of personnel suffering from the disease.

    Here, the authors would like to share their observations from Thailand, the second county affected in the timelines of COVID-19 outbreak. At present (20th March 2020), the accumulated number of COVID-19 in Thailand is 272. Of this, one of the cases is a forensic practitioner working in Bangkok, capital of Thailand. Indeed, there are only 2 COVID-19 patients who are medical personnel (the forensic medicine professional and a nurse assistant3). Although patients may get the infection from workplace exposure or through spreading in the community, at the period of the occurrence of this case, the patients in Thailand are mostly imported cases and recording of local spreading in the community is limited. There is low chance of forensic medicine professionals coming into contact with infected patients, but they can have contact with biological samples and corpses. At present, there is no data on the exact number of COVID-19 contaminated corpses since it is not a routine practice to examine for COVID-19 in dead bodies in Thailand. Nevertheless, infection control and universal precautions are necessary. Forensic professionals have to wear protective devices including a protective suit, gloves, goggles, cap and mask. The disinfection procedure used in operation rooms might be applied in pathology/forensic units too.
    According to our best knowledge, this is the first report on COVID-19 infection and death among medical personnel in a Forensic Medicine unit.

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