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Turkish Covid-19 researchers decry government interference

Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul

Turkish medical professionals called for an end to restrictions on independent research into the coronavirus outbreak, saying an “unprecedented” requirement to first seek government approval had resulted in the rejection of at least one large study.

A regulation introduced in April compels scientists to apply for health ministry permission for pandemic research, a break with the previous practice of applying to independent ethics committees, according to a letter signed by members of the Turkish Thoracic Society and published in The Lancet medical journal on Saturday.

Although the ministry has approved most applications, it rejected the Thoracic Society’s proposal for a large, multicentre observational study, as well as others without saying why, they wrote in the letter. The ministry in May denied obstructing research and said the new measure was meant to ease access to national data.

The researchers also noted that Turkey’s decision not to follow all World Health Organization classifications may have led to undercounting of thousands of deaths from the disease.

Statistics issued by the government of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pictured in the Black Sea city of Rize on Sunday, include only patients who test positive with a polymerase chain reaction test, which has a significant false-negative rate.

Excess mortality in Istanbul alone was 4,723 deaths between March 11 and July 5, when compared with the average rate of the preceding three years. Of those, Covid-19 deaths in the city were 2,771, meaning 1,952 deaths were unexplained, they said.

“Tension soon started building among the public sector and medical and scientific organisations due to the Ministry of Health’s lack of transparency, its reluctance to share basic data and its refusal to collaborate,” they wrote, adding a shortage of protective equipment for healthcare workers was another source of friction.

The number of new daily cases in Turkey is hovering at its highest level in seven weeks, with 1,192 new cases reported on Sunday, bringing the total to nearly 250,000. Almost 6,000 people have died.

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