Saturday October 29, 2005
Some might suggest that I don’t know when to stop. And so we begin our third consecutive column on Dr Chris Malyszewicz and his Northants-based Chemsol Consulting: the tabloids’ favourite microbiology laboratory, the lab that gives positive MRSA swab results for undercover journalists who want dirty hospital scoops, where others labs do not. Last week we saw how he had finally released some of his “MRSA” samples: yet microbiologists who tested them found that and six out of eight didn’t actually have any MRSA. Even the other two were dubious.
But could those journalists have known at the time that this lab was providing inaccurate results? Well firstly, what would they have seen when they visited this laboratory? A report from the government’s Inspector of Microbiology describes the Chemsol laboratory as “a freestanding, single story wooden building, approximately 6m x 2m in the back garden”. So that’s a shed. It had “benching of a good household quality (not to microbiology laboratory standards)” which sounds like kitchen fittings to me. The lab had no accreditation, unheard of for any lab doing work on NHS hospitals. Dr Malyszewicz had a “non-accredited correspondence course PhD” from America, which some tabloids noticed, calling him Mr Malyszewicz. But they still ignored the fact he had no microbiology training.
And he had a commercial interest. I have a long history of chiding humanities graduate “science reporters” who know nothing about their subject, whose only strategy for critically appraising scientific research is to talk about the motives of the people behind it. Remember the journalists who told us to ignore huge epidemiological studies showing that MMR was safe because one of the authors once ate a drug company sandwich? But guess who sells this: “Worried about MRSA? The perfect gift for a friend or relative in hospital. Show them how much you care for their health by giving a Combact Antimicrobial Hospital Pack. Making sure they come out fighting fit.” That’s right. The man the Mail on Sunday called “leading MRSA expert Dr Christopher Malyszewicz”. Most of Chemsol’s money comes from selling disinfectants for MRSA, with their excellent promotional material: “Antibiotics are in reality ‘chemicals’ designed to target and selectively destroy the surface membranes of bacteria, viruses and fungi,” it says. Seriously. An expert who thinks antibiotics kill viruses. And I think he might mean cell wall, not cell membrane.
An expert who writes, of his methods: “Checks are made in the lab for what the Department of Health require, which are coagulase positive and coagulase negative Staphylococcus aureus.” Now I’m getting geeky here, but the coagulase test is how you distinguish Staph aureus from the mostly harmless and completely different Staph epidermidis, which is quite probably all over your skin right now. This might help go some way towards explaining the problems he had with false positives.
Now, I could just about remember that much microbiology, from my frankly dismal performance in the subject at medical school. But is it all too complicated for a science journalist to understand? Maybe. In which case they should stop being so grandiose. They were told, time and again, by eminent microbiologists, by the inspector of microbiology, that there was cause for concern about Chemsol’s results, but they chose to ignore the warnings. And they still have not retracted their stories. Do they think they know better?
Nobody is defamed in these MRSA scare stories. There is nobody to sue the papers and make them retract. So if you, or a hospital you work for, were victimised by a tabloid MRSA sting, I want to know about it. Perhaps you work for a press office. Perhaps you’re a microbiologist. I want the letters you wrote to the newspapers, and the responses you got back, if any. Starting from next week, we will name and we will shame.
Â· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org