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Panel endorses BMJ refusal to retract statins articles



An independent panel has backed the BMJ’s decision not to withdraw two articles about statins, after the journal admitted both contained erroneous statements regarding the drugs’ side effects.

The panel was convened by the journal to review whether it was right to only withdraw the inaccurate statements rather than the full articles, following calls from a leading academic to retract them altogether.

After a two-month review, the panel, led by former RCGP president Dr Iona Heath, said its members were ‘unanimous in their decision that the two papers do not meet any of the criteria for retraction’.

The articles in question were a debate piece by North American academics, led by Harvard Professor John Abramson, and an opinion piece by London cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, both of which questioned the value of extending statin use to healthy people at low risk of cardiovascular disease.

Professor Rory Collins, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University, had called for both articles to be retracted because they had incorrectly interpreted a previous study in stating the rate of side effects of statins is around 20%.

The BMJ withdrew the erroneous statements but refused to retract the articles. However, despite standing by the original conclusions that there is no mortality benefit from statin treatment in people at less than a 20% 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease, journal editor Dr Fiona Godlee set up an independent panel to look at how it had dealt with the issue.

The panel, chaired by Dr Heath and including six internationally renowned experts, concluded the journal had handled the two articles appropriately and that its processes were timely and reasonable.

BMJ editor Dr Fiona Godlee said: ‘The independent panel has unanimously endorsed our handling of this matter. We are grateful to the panel for their hard work in helping to maintain the journal’s scientific integrity.’

The debate over the papers came amid controversy over NICE’s decision to halve the primary prevention threshold for statin use, from a 10-year risk of 20% to 10% – potentially putting millions more healthy people in the UK on statins.

Professor Collins, lead author of a major review on which the NICE decision was partly based, had already provoked controversy by accusing opponents of the 10% primary prevention threshold of misleading the public in a similar way to doctors who raised fears about the MMR vaccine.

Professor Collins recently told the Guardian he had ‘no confidence’ in the BMJ’s independent review and called for the Government to intervene.