You want to do what? Paper on anal swabs for COVID-19 retracted for ethical issues

An article claiming that anal swabs can be used to detect SARS-CoV-2 in patients cured of Covid-19 has been retracted after the journal found that the authors failed to get permission from the patients to conduct the study. 

To be clear: We’re not sure if the researchers — from Weihai Municipal Hospital, in Shandong, China — didn’t tell the patients they were taking anal swabs (which seems, well, unlikely) or that they didn’t tell them they would be using the results of the swabs in a study (the more reasonable interpretation). But the notice is vague on that point. 

You may recall that in January the Chinese government in January launched a program to implement widespread anal swabbing to look for SARS-CoV-2 — a plan that, as the Washington Post reported, did not meet with cheers from the local population.  

The article, “Anal swab as the potentially optimal specimen for SARS-CoV-2 detection to evaluate the hospital discharge of COVID-19 patients,” appeared in July in Future Microbiology. According to the abstract: 

Since December 2019, an outbreak of SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) began in Wuhan, and has rapidly spread worldwide. Previously, discharged patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) patients met the criteria of China’s pneumonia diagnosis and treatment program of novel coronavirus infection (trial version 7) for cure of viral infection. Nevertheless, positive detection of SARS-CoV-2 has been found again in several cured COVID-19 patients, leading to conflicts with current criteria. Here, we report clinically cured cases with positive results only in anal swabs, and investigate the clinical value of anal swabs for SARS-CoV-2 detection.

The study, which has been cited just once, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science — included four patients: a 3-year-old boy, two men, ages 45 and 23, and a 37-year-old woman. 

The retraction notice states: 

The following article has been retracted from Future Microbiology as it did not meet the ethical standards of the Journal, owing to a lack of informed consent obtained from the patients, prior to publication:

Mei Sun, Dong Guo, Jing Zhang, Jian Zhang, Hai-Feng Teng, Jun Xia, Peng Liu, Quan-Xu Ge, Ming-Yi Wang, ‘Anal swab as a potentially optimal specimen for SARS-CoV-2 detection to evaluate hospital discharge of COVID-19 patients’ appearing in the August issue of Future Microbiol. 15(12), 1101–1107 (2020).

The authors and editors of Future Microbiology regret any negative consequences this publication might have caused in the scientific and medical communities.

Interestingly, the article claims that:

This study was approved by the Weihai Municipal Hospital review board, and the need for informed consent was waived.

We emailed Wang but the messages bounced back. 

Speaking of lack of consent, retractions of studies using organs harvested from prisoners continue to arrive. Most recently, BMC Neurology pulled this 2008 paper, titled “In-hospital cerebrovascular complications following orthotopic liver transplantation: A retrospective study,” stating

The authors have retracted this article after concerns were raised with respect to the source of donor organs [1].

This study retrospectively reviewed the data of patients with in-hospital cerebrovascular complications after receiving liver transplants at the Organ Transplantation Center, First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen University, from January 1996 to June 2005. The authors have stated that during this period most of the transplanted organs were obtained from executed prisoners; therefore the study reported in this article does not meet the international standards of ethics in organ transplantation and informed donor consent. Li Ling, Jinsheng Zeng and Zhijian Liang agree with this retraction. Xiaoshun He has not responded to correspondence from the Publisher about this retraction.

The paper has been cited 11 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

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2 thoughts on “You want to do what? Paper on anal swabs for COVID-19 retracted for ethical issues”

  1. “This study was approved by the Weihai Municipal Hospital review board, and the need for informed consent was waived.”

    This seems like a serious systemic problem that goes beyond this one study.

    1. Indeed.

      This is happening everywhere–either that or the informed might not understand what exactly they are consenting to.

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