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Could this be a perfect example of health news clickbait?

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2 Star

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Could this experimental drug stop the flu in 24 hours?

Our Review Summary

The headline on this CBS News/Live Science abridged version of a longer article in the Wall Street Journal asks, “Could this experimental drug stop the flu in 24 hours?”

The best answer is “maybe, someday, yet maybe not,” but this story is a sad example of “truthy” clickbait, and how not to report medical research. The article acknowledges that the Japanese maker of the flu pill is “offering up a big claim,” but the piece is starved for data and leaves the reader with the impression that experiments have already proven the drug is safe and effective, and that U.S. FDA approval is all but assured. Far more original reporting was needed here.

Update: Because of this and other stories like it, we explored this issue further in a blog post, “Drug kills flu in a day, news headlines claim. Here’s why that’s bad for public health.”

 

Why This Matters

The current flu pandemic has sickened millions worldwide and is on track to kill scores of thousands. No surprise then, that a pharmaceutical company’s announcement of a one-day, one-dose pill that “kills the flu virus” will make headlines. But as the CDC and medical professionals keep reminding us, there’s still time to get the current flu shot and urgency is attached. This CBS story could well mislead the unvaccinated and vulnerable to yet again say “no” the vaccine, pin their hopes (prematurely) on a quick cure if they get sick, and further endanger their own and others’ health and lives.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No costs are discussed. Given the millions already sickened or at risk of the flu, knowing the cost of the new drug from Shionogi and Co. is a critical piece of information for health care budgets already stretched to the breakpoint for many families and communities.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The article says a “single dose” of the “new drug” was tested in a clinical trial and eliminated the virus in 24 hours. But we learn nothing about how many and people of what ages of people were involved in the clinical trial, how viral load was measured, whether elimination of the virus was complete or partial, or whether there were drug failures.

We also don’t learn exactly when the drug was given — i.e. at what stage or stages of flu infection or who the control group were (Tamiflu patients, or those without Tamiflu treatment- i.e. already out of the effective treatment window). We’re told that the drug worked “three times faster” than Tamiflu, but not how fast Tamiflu works. In short, readers learn nothing that supports the drugmaker’s claim.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

This is a significant oversight of the story.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The article quotes only the original Wall Street Journal newspaper article. While it explains how the drug (whose generic or trade name is never mentioned) works and differs from Tamilflu, it does not say anything about how strong and rigorous the evidence for safety and effectiveness is or is not.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering here.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

All of the information in the story is attributed to the Wall Street Journal. Not good enough.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Although, as noted above, the article compares the claims for the new drug to Tamiflu with respect to mode and speed of action, it doesn’t mention vaccination or other symptomatic treatment, nor does it give any quantitative information that would enable accurate comparisons of cost, safety or effectiveness.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The article, again as noted above, seems to assume that the FDA will automatically approve this anti-viral drug and do so quickly. Neither assumption is necessarily the case.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story gives the reader an adequate sense of how this flu pill differs from Tamiflu.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

It’s hard to categorize just what this story relied on for sources. The company’s website did not show a news release. The article itself is an example of what some would call “shovelware” or a “cut and paste” form of publishing that scoops up data from previously published news articles and plops them into a news feed or web site. Readers are better served by offering them a link to the original news source, which this article does. But they were ill-served by the skimpy and misleading article that preceded the link.

Total Score: 2 of 9 Satisfactory

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