Last month, French doctor Didier Raoult retired and ended his career as director of the Marseille University Hospital.
Who is this doctor and why are we interested in him?
He was already a renowned researcher in infectious diseases, and he became a medical superstar in the wake of the covid pandemic. Internationally, many do not know his identity, yet he is a very influential doctor in Europe. He ended up being at the origin of Trump’s controversy on hydroxychloroquine as a covid treatment.
What interests us most is his relationship with the media and how this figure has become the symbol of a whole critique of contemporary science.
The NY Times did a profile on him titled:
He Was a Science Star. Then He Promoted a Questionable Cure for Covid-19.
Raoult, who founded and directs the research hospital known as the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection, or IHU, has made a great career assailing orthodoxy, in both word and practice.
“There’s nothing I like more than blowing up a theory that’s been so nicely established,” he once said.
He has a reputation for bluster but also for a certain creativity. He looks where no one else cares to, with methods no one else is using, and finds things. In just the past 10 years, he has helped identify nearly 500 novel species of human-borne bacteria, about one-fifth of all those named and described. Until recently, he was perhaps best known as the discoverer of the first giant virus, a microbe that, in his opinion, suggests that viruses ought to be considered a fourth and separate domain of living things.
The discovery helped win him the Grand Prix Inserm, one of France’s top scientific prizes. It also led him to believe that the tree of life suggested by Darwinian evolution is “entirely false,” he told me, and that Darwin himself “wrote nothing but insanities.” He detests consensus and comity; he believes that science, and life, ought to be a fight.
For decades, Raoult has boasted of his prodigious rates of publication and citation, which, as objective statistics, he considers to be the best measure of his worth as a researcher. Biomedical researchers in France write or contribute to perhaps 10 scientific papers every year and a few hundred in the course of a career. Raoult’s name sits atop several thousand; in each of the past eight years, he has produced more than 100. In 2020, he has already published at least 54.
One important point was overlooked by the NY Times: In terms of training, Dr. Didier Raoult is primarily a philosopher. He only later reoriented himself towards practical medicine, following in the footsteps of his family.
In France, the general education system is divided into three streams: economics, science and literature. To change from the literary path to medicine is very difficult and unusual, to say the least.
This shows that Raoult is not only an excellent researcher but also someone who has a deep understanding of the philosophy of science. Furthermore, he taught epistemology for many years and showed in public conferences that he’s trained in the scientific method.
This may explain his atypical behavior amongst academicians:
In recent years, Raoult has amused himself, it seems, by staking out tendentious scientific claims, sometimes in territories that are well beyond the scope of his expertise. He is skeptical, for instance, of the utility of mathematical modeling in the realm of epidemiology. The same logic has led him to conclude that climate modelers are no more than “soothsayers” for our “scientistic era” and that their dire predictions are mostly just an attempt to expiate our intense but irrational feelings of guilt.
He is also dismissive of the alarmism that is the default position among specialists of infectious disease. He doubted, initially, that SARS-CoV-2 would spread beyond China, or that it might be a terrible problem if it did. On Jan. 20, Chinese scientists confirmed that infections were being transmitted from patient to patient, and President Xi Jinping, in his first public comments about the coronavirus, declared that all possible measures would have to be taken to contain the outbreak. The World Health Organization announced an emergency meeting.
The following day, in Marseille, Raoult posted a video to his institute’s YouTube channel. He faced his offscreen interviewer with weary eyes, sighed and said, “You know, the world has gone crazy.” Every year, he said, there are probably 600 or 700 people who die from coronavirus infections in France and thousands more from other respiratory illnesses. “The fact that people have died from a coronavirus in China, I don’t feel like it means much of anything for me,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe people don’t have anything to do, so they’ve gone looking in China for something to be scared about.”
At the beginning of 2020, he unwittingly launched the controversy over hydroxychloroquine. With the help of Chinese studies, he discovered the effectiveness of the treatment and began to treat the entire city of Marseille with a new protocol. The treatment seemed to be effective, but the medical and pharmaceutical authorities quickly got involved and eventually prohibited the use of hydroxychloroquine. Despite this, many countries in the world, including Trump’s government, had already been influenced by the doctor and implemented his treatment.
Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are well characterized, well tolerated and widely prescribed medications. Azithromycin was developed 40 years ago in the former Yugoslavia and is today the second-most commonly prescribed antibiotic in the United States. Hydroxychloroquine, along with its more toxic analog chloroquine, was for several decades the most commonly prescribed antimalarial drug in the world. Today it is widely used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. All three molecules are included on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, a compilation of “the most efficacious, safe and cost-effective medicines for priority conditions.
The reaction of the media against Raoult quickly became disproportionate. While a large part of the French population began to support him unconditionally, on television he was insulted, called a charlatan, and mocked.
In order to stop Dr. Raoult, studies and studies were published. In June 2020, the Lancet magazine published a meta-analysis supposed to prove forever that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective against covid. This study was cited widely by mainstream media to discredit the drug. But Lancet later admitted that the report used fraudulent data. In July the magazine finally retracted the paper with an apology. The mainstream media, of course, did not publicize this fact.
For Raoult, this incident is a symptom of an entire scientific paradigm that is dying. Modern science is much more than a research methodology; it is also a business model. All research is supported by the concept of patent. When an innovation is found, it is patented and profits are made on it. However, there comes a point where the patent expires and the exploitation of the innovation becomes free.
This system encourages one to always look for novelty and to abandon the re-exploitation of old discoveries. In the case of hydroxychloroquine, the molecule is so old that there is no longer any intellectual property on which to base profits. This makes it a non-profitable drug. The pharmaceutical lobby therefore opposed this treatment and sought to put an end to its use because of a conflict of interest.
Didier Raoult’s work was not limited to pure research, however. He has launched a theory and a systemic critique of modern science. He is also a thinker who is not afraid of polemics and of saying what he thinks. In France, he literally divided the population with the “pro-Raoult” on one side and the “anti-Raoult” on the other. As a result of some of the unfair and slanderous criticism that was circulating in the French mainstream media, people were even seen demonstrating in the streets for him.
He is now in retirement. Perhaps he will continue to contribute to research in the future, but in the meantime he will be remembered as a unique thinker and researcher, who stood against covid tyranny in the face of brutal opposition.