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Fact Check-Journal article questioning effectiveness of masks against COVID-19 is not a Stanford University study

Updating paragraph 16 to include comment from Elsevier spokesperson

An article in a self-described journal for “novel, radical new ideas and speculations in medicine”, which questioned the evidence that face masks curb the spread of COVID-19, has been described as a study by Stanford University. The article describes its author, Baruch Vainshelboim, as affiliated with the Cardiology Division at the Stanford University School of Medicine. However, Stanford says this attribution is inaccurate. The author had a one-year term as a visiting scholar in 2016 “on matters unrelated to this paper” and has had no affiliation since.

Stanford Medicine advises the use of face masks to control the transmission of COVID-19.

Social media posts making this claim can be found here , here and here .

Originally published in the online Elsevier publication Medical Hypotheses, a November 2020 article claims “scientific evidence supporting facemasks’ efficacy is lacking” and that “facemasks have compromised safety” and should therefore “be avoided from use” (here).

The full article, available as a PDF here , affiliates its author, Baruch Vainshelboim, with “Cardiology Division, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System/Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, United States.”

Medical Hypotheses describes its purpose as “to give novel, radical new ideas and speculations in medicine open-minded consideration, opening the field to radical hypotheses which would be rejected by most conventional journals.” (here)

TRACING VAINSHELBOIM’S ARTICLE

In mid-April 2021, conservative voices such as The Gateway Pundit (here) and other sceptics of face masks, such as Naomi Wolf (here) circulated Vainshelboim’s paper, claiming that it was a “Stanford study.”

In response, Stanford Medicine released a statement (here) saying that it “strongly supports the use of face masks to control the spread of COVID-19” and that the paper “is not a ‘Stanford Study.’”

According to the statement, “the author’s affiliation is inaccurately attributed to Stanford” by Medical Hypotheses and they requested a correction from the journal. Vainshelboim “had no affiliation with the VA Palo Alto Health System or Stanford at the time of publication and has not had any affiliation since 2016, when his one-year term as a visiting scholar on matters unrelated to this paper ended.”

The author’s apparent LinkedIn page, available here , identifies Vainshelboim as a Clinical Exercise Physiologist with a PhD from the Universidade do Porto in Portugal. Reuters reached out to Vainshelboim via LinkedIn message, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Claims that this paper was “released by the NCBI, which is under the National Institutes of Health” are false.

The article is available here on PubMed Central, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)’s searchable database. The NCBI is a division of the National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (here).

The journal Medical Hypotheses, however, is not affiliated with the NCBI or the NIH.

“Medical Hypothesis is not a PubMed Central (PMC) participating journal,” a spokesperson for the National Library of Medicine told Reuters via email. “Rather, the article referenced was submitted to PMC at the discretion of the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, under the Public Health Emergency COVID-19 Initiative.”

The spokesperson clarified that “the presence of any specific article or citation in NLM’s physical or electronic collections, including PMC and PubMed, does not constitute agreement with, or endorsement of, or promotion of its contents by the NLM or NIH.”

Jonathan Davis, a spokesperson for Elsevier, told Reuters via email that Medical Hypotheses has since retracted the article after concluding it was misleading due to “a broader review of existing scientific evidence” showing that masks “are an effective prevention of COVID-19 transmission” and said that the article contained several misquotes and unverified data. Davis said that the author himself had submitted the affiliation with Stanford Medicine.

As reported here by Forbes, Medical Hypotheses has previously published articles such as “Is there an association between the use of heeled footwear and schizophrenia” (here) and “Ejaculation as a potential treatment of nasal congestion in mature males” (here).

The journal’s 2009 publication of an article denying that HIV causes AIDS ignited controversy in the scientific community, “with attention being drawn to the fact that the journal was not peer reviewed,” according to Nature (here). The journal ultimately withdrew the article permanently. Elsevier fired editor Bruce Charlton, and instituted peer review at the journal, Nature reported.

WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT MASKS

To combat the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “recommends wearing a mask, that covers the nose and mouth and fits snugly against the sides of the face, as a measure to contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets” (here).

The World Health Organization (WHO) says masks “should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives.” It notes that “the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection against COVID-19,” and recommends additional precautions such as hand washing, physical distancing, avoiding crowds, and keeping rooms well ventilated (here).

As stated here in Nature, “ the science supports using masks, with recent studies suggesting that they could save lives in different ways: research shows that they cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, and some studies hint that masks might reduce the severity of infection if people do contract the disease.”

A Reuters fact check exploring studies supporting the use of masks for slowing the spread of coronavirus can be seen here .

Reuters Fact Check has debunked several false claims involving the alleged dangers of wearing face masks, including claims that they cause cancer (here , here), hypoxia and bacterial pneumonia (here), fungal respiratory infections (here) and brain damage (here).

VERDICT

False. A November 2020 journal article questioning the evidence for the efficacy of face masks in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus is not a “Stanford study,” nor is it affiliated with the National Institutes of Health. Face masks have been scientifically proven to curb the transmission of COVID-19.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .

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