Review report Corman-Drosten et al. Eurosurveillance 2020
November 27, 2020This extensive review report has been officially submitted to Eurosurveillance editorial board on 27th November 2020 via their submission-portal, enclosed to this review report is a retraction request letter, signed by all the main & co-authors. First and last listed names are the first and second main authors. All names in between are co-authors.
External peer review of the RTPCR test to detect SARS-CoV-2 reveals 10 major scientific flaws at the molecular and methodological level: consequences for false positive esults.
Pieter Borger(1), Bobby Rajesh Malhotra(2) , Michael Yeadon(3) , Clare Craig(4), Kevin McKernan(5) , Klaus Steger(6) , Paul McSheehy(7) , Lidiya Angelova(8), Fabio Franchi(9), Thomas Binder(10), Henrik Ullrich(11) , Makoto Ohashi(12), Stefano Scoglio(13), Marjolein Doesburg-van Kleffens(14), Dorothea Gilbert(15), Rainer Klement(16), Ruth Schruefer(17), Berber W. Pieksma(18), Jan Bonte(19), Bruno H. Dalle Carbonare(20), Kevin P. Corbett(21), Ulrike Kämmerer(22)
In the publication entitled “Detection of 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) by real-time RT-PCR” (Eurosurveillance 25(8) 2020) the authors present a diagnostic workflow and RT-qPCR protocol for detection and diagnostics of 2019-nCoV (now known as SARS-CoV-2), which they claim to be validated, as well as being a robust diagnostic methodology for use in public-health laboratory settings.
In light of all the consequences resulting from this very publication for societies worldwide, a group of independent researchers performed a point-by-point review of the aforesaid publication in which 1) all components of the presented test design were cross checked, 2) the RT-qPCR protocol-recommendations were assessed w.r.t. good laboratory practice, and 3) parameters examined against relevant scientific literature covering the field.
The published RT-qPCR protocol for detection and diagnostics of 2019-nCoV and the manuscript suffer from numerous technical and scientific errors, including insufficient primer design, a problematic and insufficient RT-qPCR protocol, and the absence of an accurate test validation. Neither the presented test nor the manuscript itself fulfils the requirements for an acceptable scientific publication. Further, serious conflicts of interest of the authors are not mentioned. Finally, the very short timescale between submission and acceptance of the publication (24 hours) signifies that a systematic peer review process was either not performed here, or of problematic poor quality. We provide compelling evidence of several scientific inadequacies, errors and flaws.
Considering the scientific and methodological blemishes presented here, we are confident that the editorial board of Eurosurveillance has no other choice but to retract the publication.
SUMMARY CATALOGUE OF ERRORS FOUND IN THE PAPER
The Corman-Drosten paper contains the following specific errors:
1. There exists no specified reason to use these extremely high concentrations of primers in this protocol. The described concentrations lead to increased nonspecific bindings and PCR product amplifications, making the test unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
2. Six unspecified wobbly positions will introduce an enormous variability in the real world laboratory implementations of this test; the confusing nonspecific description in the Corman-Drosten paper is not suitable as a Standard Operational Protocol making the test unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
3. The test cannot discriminate between the whole virus and viral fragments. Therefore, the test cannot be used as a diagnostic for intact (infectious) viruses, making the test unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus and make inferences about the presence of an infection.
4. A difference of 10° C with respect to the annealing temperature Tm for primer pair1 (RdRp_SARSr_F and RdRp_SARSr_R) also makes the test unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
5. A severe error is the omission of a Ct value at which a sample is considered positive and negative. This Ct value is also not found in follow-up submissions making the test unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
6. The PCR products have not been validated at the molecular level. This fact makes the protocol useless as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
7. The PCR test contains neither a unique positive control to evaluate its specificity for SARS-CoV-2 nor a negative control to exclude the presence of other coronaviruses, making the test unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
8. The test design in the Corman-Drosten paper is so vague and flawed that one can go in dozens of different directions; nothing is standardized and there is no SOP. This highly questions the scientific validity of the test and makes it unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
9. Most likely, the Corman-Drosten paper was not peer-reviewed making the test unsuitable as a specific diagnostic tool to identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
10. We find severe conflicts of interest for at least four authors, in addition to the fact that two of the authors of the Corman-Drosten paper (Christian Drosten and Chantal Reusken) are members of the editorial board of Eurosurveillance. A conflict of interest was added on July 29 2020 (Olfert Landt is CEO of TIB-Molbiol; Marco Kaiser is senior researcher at GenExpress and serves as scientific advisor for TIB-Molbiol), that was not declared in the original version (and still is missing in the PubMed version); TIB-Molbiol is the company which was “the first” to produce PCR kits (Light Mix) based on the protocol published in the Corman-Drosten manuscript, and according to their own words, they distributed these PCR-test kits before the publication was even submitted ; further, Victor Corman & Christian Drosten failed to mention their second affiliation: the commercial test laboratory “Labor Berlin”. Both are responsible for the virus diagnostics there  and the company operates in the realm of real time PCR-testing.
In light of our re-examination of the test protocol to identify SARS-CoV-2 described in the Corman-Drosten paper we have identified concerning errors and inherent fallacies which render the SARS-CoV-2 PCR test useless.
The decision as to which test protocols are published and made widely available lies squarely in the hands of Eurosurveillance. A decision to recognise the errors apparent in the Corman-Drosten paper has the benefit to greatly minimise human cost and suffering going forward.
Is it not in the best interest of Eurosurveillance to retract this paper? Our conclusion is clear. In the face of all the tremendous PCR-protocol design flaws and errors described here, we conclude: There is not much of a choice left in the framework of scientific integrity and responsibility.