A family member sent me this video interviewing Richard Bartlett, MD, a family practice doctor in Odessa, TX. In the video, Dr. Bartlett claims to have found the cure for COVID-19 – an inhaled steroid, Budesonide. Here is my response to my family member:

TL:DR version: This guy’s claims are not credible and his proposed treatment does not have sufficient evidence to support it.

Here’s the long version of my response:

In the sciences, responsible scholars are unwilling to make any claims, let alone really bold claims, until other scholars have verified their claims. You may recall the cold fusion debacle at the University of Utah in the 1980s in which Stanley Pons claimed (with Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton) that he had discovered cold fusion. He was forced to retract those claims when no other scientists could replicate his research. Basically, it is highly irresponsible (and, in a pandemic it is reckless, unethical, and dishonest) to make claims that have not been tested, verified, and validated by other experts. As I watched the video, a number of red flags popped up for me. I will detail them in turn. But, before I do, I will note one thing that makes this claim seem almost credible.

The current evidence we have suggests that two drugs may help people with COVID-19, dexamethasone and Remdesivir. Dexamethasone is a steroid and it has been shown to help but is absolutely not a cure for everyone who takes it. It cuts the risk of death by about a third for patients on ventilators (it cuts the risk of death by about a fifth for those on oxygen). Remdesivir is NOT a steroid. It is an antiviral that interferes with the production of viral RNA (as opposed to DNA). Thus, it could seem credible that inhaled steroids like Budesonide would be effective, especially since our early understanding of COVID-19 was that it was a respiratory virus. This also seems plausible because COVID-19 is often contracted by breathing in particles from infected individuals into the lungs where the virus is able to infect cells. However, more research has revealed that COVID-19 spreads to other parts of the body and causes damage in other locations (e.g., kidneys, cardiovascular system, etc.). Thus, the claim that inhaled steroids works seems plausible. But just because something “seems” plausible doesn’t mean it actually works.

UPDATE 7/20/2020: A new study suggests inhaling interferon beta may reduce the risk of developing severe disease from COVID-19 by as much as 79%. However, appropriate caution about the results is warranted as the study has not been peer-reviewed, has a small sample size, and needs replication. This study is a good illustration of how research should be done, in contrast to Dr. Bartlett’s claims.

Now, on to the red flags… 

Red Flags

As I watched the interview, a number of very serious problems surfaced. Here they are in detail.

1) The most outlandish problem with Dr. Richard Bartlett’s interview was that he was claiming things that are demonstrably untrue. He suggested that the very low death rates in Taiwan, Japan, and Iceland (among other countries) are due to the medical experts in those countries using inhaled steroids. That is demonstrably false. Iceland, for instance, closed all of its borders, tracked down every single case of COVID-19, isolated them, and eventually, stopped the virus. They also force anyone coming into the country to quarantine for two weeks – everyone! You can read about their efforts here. Similar approaches were taken in Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea. None of these countries attribute their low death rates to the use of inhaled steroids to treat patients. They used contact tracing and quarantine to minimize the number of cases. Dr. Bartlett is being dishonest and misrepresenting the facts when he claims that these countries used inhaled steroids to treat these patients when there is no evidence to support his claims. This was a major red flag suggesting he is being dishonest.

2) When Dr. Bartlett was asked how many patients he had treated, he didn’t give a direct answer. A scientist with compelling evidence would know exactly what their sample size is. I have published dozens of research articles and I make it very clear in all of them what my sample size is. Sample sizes are a component of any research study because other researchers need to know the basics of the research design so they can replicate it. Instead, he just keeps saying that he’s treated lots of people and has had a 100% success rate. He provides no more information about the patients: How severe were these cases (we know COVID-19 cases vary in severity)? How old were they? What other comorbidities did they have? He provides no additional information in a credible format. These are serious red flags to me.

3) As noted above, responsible scientists submit their research for publication before they make claims, particularly bold claims. Dr. Bartlett’s evidence is entirely “anecdotal,” which is to say he has no real evidence at all. Unless he has kept detailed records for every single patient he has treated with clear information about their diagnosis with COVID-19, the length of time they had the disease before they were treated, other medical interventions involved, all underlying comorbidities, and can rule out all other possible medical interventions that would have helped, and can aggregate that information into a clear pattern of success, he would not be able to publish these claims. Stories are powerful. We like them. And we find them convincing. But scientists don’t find them compelling. We want evidence. Lots of it. And we need to have it verified, ideally by 2 or more experts. Dr. Bartlett’s claims are extraordinary. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. He provides none.

4) These claims have all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. The video was posted on July 3rd. If this was the cure, major news outlets around the world would have picked this up. So far, none of them are touching this. Conspiracy theorists will point to this and say that it is evidence that there is a conspiracy against Dr. Bartlett. But that is the problem with conspiracy theorists – when something does happen, it supports their conspiracy; and when nothing happens, it also supports their conspiracy. It’s virtually impossible to convince conspiracy theorists that they are wrong because all the evidence, including the absence of evidence, is seen to support their conspiracy. Yet, doesn’t it seem far more reasonable to conclude that, if someone had found a cure nearly two weeks ago that every major news source on the planet would have put this on the front page or made this the headline in their broadcasts? Only a conspiracy theorist would look at the lack of media coverage and see a conspiracy to hide a cure. 

5) Dr. Richard Bartlett has not, to my knowledge, ever published a single research article in the scientific literature. There is one Richard Bartlett with a user profile on Google Scholar – a law professor at the University of Western Australia (who, no doubt, is going to be pissed that someone with his same name is going to get a lot of negative publicity). There are some other “R Bartletts” who have published research, but those individuals do not appear to be Dr. Richard Bartlett from Texas. So you can see the Google Scholar profile for an actual scholar, here is my Google Scholar profile. The nice thing about Google Scholar is that it is publicly accessible. There are other ways to find research by scholars, but they are behind paywalls and the public cannot see them. But Google Scholar makes it quite easy to see whether someone is a recognized scholar. Dr. Richard Bartlett is not. Our most basic criteria for determining whether someone is an expert in the sciences is to see if they have published research in their stated area of expertise. In this case, Dr. Bartlett should have published research in medicine related journals, particularly on the uses of inhaled steroids or on the treatment of viral respiratory infections. He has not. He is NOT an expert. Just because he is a medical doctor does not mean he is an expert on these topics. There are lots of MDs who push treatments that are completely ineffective and even harmful

So, those are the red flags. I did some additional digging on this topic and here’s what I found:

a) I found two review articles by actual experts on the efficacy of inhaled steroids for treating COVID-19 (article 1 and article 2). Neither claim this is the cure for COVID-19. Here is the summary from one of those studies, “At present, there is no evidence as to whether pre-morbid use or continued administration of ICS [inhaled corticosteroids] is a factor for adverse or beneficial outcomes in acute respiratory infections due to coronavirus.”

b) Further digging by a local news channel called Dr. Bartlett’s claims into question as well. 

So, the long answer to your question is: Dr. Bartlett is, at a minimum, not being honest (as detailed above). He is also being irresponsible in making claims that have not been verified with peer-review. He is not an expert on respiratory infections or inhaled steroids. He is dishonest about his claims and evasive with his answers. The scientific literature does not support his claims, though responsible scientists admit that more research is needed.

My verdict: There is no compelling evidence that Dr. Bartlett has found “THE CURE” for COVID-19. Maybe this will help; maybe not. The only way to know for certain is to conduct rigorous clinical trials.

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15 Replies to “Richard Bartlett’s claimed COVID-19 cure – A Skeptical Response”

  1. Your article makes a lot of sense. However, who are you? Are you a Dr, scientist? You make good points but how do we believe you over Dr Bartlett? Have you published articles?
    Like I said, I appreciate your views but your credentials are missing.

    1. What your comment seems to want is for me to pull some credentials out that trump those of Dr. Bartlett. That is basically a logical fallacy called “appeal to authority.” That fallacy assumes that authorities can always be trusted and that if someone is a “higher” authority than someone else than they should be trusted more. That is a logical fallacy, as Dr. Bartlett illustrates. He is using the fact that he is an MD to try to convince people to believe him. Just because he has an MD doesn’t mean he is an expert on every aspect of medicine. A better measure of someone’s expertise is whether they are doing cutting edge research in that area, as I noted in my post. Dr. Bartlett has never, to my knowledge, published a single scientific article related to respiratory illness or steroid use to treat respiratory illness. As a result, I question his expertise on this specific treatment. I am not trying to malign Dr. Bartlett as a person or even as a family practitioner (which is his specialty). He may be a very nice person and a generally good physician. But his claims about finding a cure to COVID-19 are highly suspect for all the reasons noted above and he has not allowed his “research” (I put that in quotes because it would not qualify as research at this point) to be examined by experts in this area.

      I didn’t highlight my expertise precisely because I am trying to avoid the appeal to authority fallacy. You should examine what I wrote just as skeptically as I examined what Dr. Bartlett said. I provided links to all of my sources as well. Read those. Make your own decisions.

      If you insist on learning more about me as a scholar, I actually linked to my Google Scholar profile in my response. I have a PhD in Sociology and have published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in a variety of scientific journals, some of which focus specifically on health. My focus in my criticism of Richard Bartlett is less on the technical details of the biology and physiology (those aren’t my areas of expertise) and more on how science is done because I am a scientist who does science.

  2. So who wrote this response?
    And with what qualifications in the medical field?
    Failure to identify oneself and one’s qualifications seem pretty suspect all around.

    1. What your comment seems to want is for me to pull some credentials out that trump those of Dr. Bartlett. That is basically a logical fallacy called “appeal to authority.” That fallacy assumes that authorities can always be trusted and that if someone is a “higher” authority than someone else than they should be trusted more. That is a logical fallacy, as Dr. Bartlett illustrates. He is using the fact that he is an MD to try to convince people to believe him. Just because he has an MD doesn’t mean he is an expert on every aspect of medicine. A better measure of someone’s expertise is whether they are doing cutting edge research in that area, as I noted in my post. Dr. Bartlett has never, to my knowledge, published a single scientific article related to respiratory illness or steroid use to treat respiratory illness. As a result, I question his expertise on this specific treatment. I am not trying to malign Dr. Bartlett as a person or even as a family practitioner (which is his specialty). He may be a very nice person and a generally good physician. But his claims about finding a cure to COVID-19 are highly suspect for all the reasons noted above and he has not allowed his “research” (I put that in quotes because it would not qualify as research at this point) to be examined by experts in this area.

      I didn’t highlight my expertise precisely because I am trying to avoid the appeal to authority fallacy. You should examine what I wrote just as skeptically as I examined what Dr. Bartlett said. I provided links to all of my sources as well. Read those. Make your own decisions.

      If you insist on learning more about me as a scholar, I actually linked to my Google Scholar profile in my response. I have a PhD in Sociology and have published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in a variety of scientific journals, some of which focus specifically on health. My focus in my criticism of Richard Bartlett is less on the technical details of the biology and physiology (those aren’t my areas of expertise) and more on how science is done because I am a scientist who does science.

  3. “I have a PhD in Sociology” – well, that says it all. Also, as Thomas Sowell points out aptly, there is a propensity for the “degree-ed class” to feel that their “expertise” in a narrow discipline in some way qualifies them to opine on all subjects as an “expert.”.

    “A better measure of someone’s expertise is whether they are doing cutting edge research ” This is the opinion of the academic class, a definition for people whose knowledge is inconsequential – i.e. they render opinions without consequence; no one dies if they are wrong. A practicing physician .makes “consequential” decisions – if wrong, someone may die.

    “I am not trying to malign Dr. Bartlett ” – you called him a Huckster. Perhaps in “Sociology” circles this is not pejorative, but the rest of the world might disagree. A “Huckster” generally is selling something. Dr. Bartlett dosen’t strike me as such; he isn’t even taking new patients and, as he points out, this recommendation is for a cheap, readily available remedy. Contrast this to, say, a Dr. Fauci, who is aligned with Gilead in both his pet drug Remdesivir & a potential vaccine and basking in his 15 minutes of stardom. Hoping this doesn’t come across as “maligning” you, but you are an elitist in my view.

    1. I am an elitist. Proudly so. I will never apologize for being smart, even when people try to criticize me for it.

      I respect expertise. I celebrate expertise.

      In the middle of a pandemic, what we want is experts. We want people who know what they are talking about and are being honest and responsible in what they do.

      Feel free to denigrate experts. But I would also suggest that you should not be the beneficiary of any of our expertise. So, no technology, no medicine, no phones, no laws, no government, no education, no social programs, etc. Embrace your idiocracy where everyone has the same level of expertise – which is to say, no expertise.

      1. Appreciate the responses you have provided to all folks offering replies. You are spot on with regard to research, sticking to addressing original points, and stating facts without bias. I have tried to explain to others about the broad application of denigrating experts, etc. – you have done this very well. Thank you.

      2. Actually, I thought Bob’s response was pretty much spot on, except for the snarky tone.

        In a separate response you state,
        “I am an elitist. Proudly so… I respect expertise. I celebrate expertise… In the middle of a pandemic, what we want is experts.“

        With all due respect I disagree. During a pandemic we want effective treatments, and experts who welcome them wherever they come from. We need people who are more interested testing the efficacy of potential lifesaving treatments, than dismissing them because they don’t have the imprimatur of a blue ribbon expert. It may not be a silver bullet, but what’s the purpose of branding Dr. Richard Bartlett a Texas rube and huckster? People currently inflicted with COVID are looking to MDs to provide effective treatments. Here’s one front line doctor who offers a potential treatment. It may be just me, but it sure sounds like you are dismissing the treatment simply because the messenger is unpublished and insufficiently precise.

        1. Dahimm, you don’t seem to have understood the point of either my original post or my response to Bob.

          Here is the key to the whole issue: How do we determine whether a treatment is effective?

          We don’t do it by just listening to anyone who has a half-cocked idea and then trying every possible wackadoodle idea. That’s how we end up poaching rhinos in Africa for their horns so aging men in China can use rhino horn shavings to get erections even though rhino horns are made up of keratin, which is the same thing as your fingernails.

          To get effective treatments we need… Wait for it… Experts!

          Experts who can use logic, careful methodologies, and evidence to determine which treatments work and which ones do not. Re-read my post. I didn’t say that Richard Bartlett’s treatment didn’t work because Richard Bartlett proposed it. I said we need evidence and verification by experts.

  4. Interesting that a tech/sociology guy (read “somebody with absolutely ZERO medical experience”) is here to parrot the utterly illogical line of “It’s not been proven beyond question therefore it must be wrong” line.

    Guess what: the entire idea of mechanisms flying on air was considered witchcraft….right up until the Wright brothers did it..
    hell, even practicing medicine was a form of voodoo…until it was “scientifically proven”..

    Point is, there are LOTS of things which are a) outside the realm of your own fields of expertise, b) neither proven nor disproven, c)potentially beneficial with low levels of negative impact, and d)incapable of being proven/disproven in a rapid fashion.

    One could easily disparage the author for his foray into fields well outside of his own expertise (and one would be entirely justified, considering he’s using his field of ignorance to attack an MD who has considerable training, dozens of years of practice on numerous continents, is widely seen as an expert in certain areas of medicine, and whose primary source of proof are 100% alive and well AND ALSO CREDITING HIM FOR THAT FACT)… but that’s beside the point..

    Let’s just say, I’ve got a degree in philosophy. and another in music. therefore I’m perfectly capable of discussing the author’s ineptitude in casting dispersions upon another field…

    because well, mice are cute and onions smell.

    see, there – that was easy wasn’t it…

    utter fallacies and a degree in pop sociology don’t f’ing make you a medical expert.

    Ya shoulda shut tha f’ up.

    1. Thanks for trolling, bob.

      I’ll let your comment stay up so everyone can see that your argument boils down to ad hominem attacks against me and not criticisms of my arguments. Your comments have not addressed any of the points I made in my original post. Instead, you are criticizing my credentials because you don’t respect sociology or my expertise (or expertise in general). Red herrings and ad hominem attacks don’t change the substance of my critique. If it makes you feel good to troll someone on the internet, hooray for you. But this is your last comment I’ll keep up.

      Why? Because, in case you missed it, this is my website. I’ll say whatever I want.

  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDSDdwN2Xcg&feature=youtu.be

    Ryan –
     
    I had a chance to watch the full video (31:11) in the link above. Below is (1) a summary of what was mentioned in the video, and (2) my conclusion and analysis
     
    1.   Summary of video
    a.   Background
      i.   Dr. Richard Bartlett is interviewed by Debbie Georgatos
      ii.   Texas Tech undergrad, med school, surgery residency
      iii.   Practiced in TX 28 years
      iv.   Task force in TX pioneered by Rick Perry
      v.   Medical expert for CBS local affiliate
    b.   Claims to have an answer for COVID
      i.   Budesonide – Inhaled steroid. Asthma medication. 100% of patient alive. Use for 5 minutes
    1.   Patients say they feel better after first treatment
    2.   Using in a nebulizer machine.
    3.   Used over 20 years. Used by babies, older folks, etc.
    4.   Causes no cardiac risk
    5.   Also prescribes an antibiotic
      ii.   Treated a number of patients – but did not tally the number
      iii.   Gives inhaled version as opposed to injection because injection turns off immune system
      iv.   Gives nebulizer because in the absence of it 90% of the medicine doesn’t get to targeted area.
    c.   He claims the other countries are doing what he is doing
      i.   Taiwan
    1.   24M people population
    2.   Only 7 people died – equivalent to number of people in a minivan
      ii.   Japan
    1.   Less than 1,000 people died
      iii.   Singapore
    1.   12 people died only
      iv.   See Johns Hopkins website for death stats in different countries
    d.   Unpublished paper
      i.   https://americacanwetalk.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/ColumnByDrBartlettReCOVID-5.pdf
      ii.   Sent unpublished paper to Senator Cruz
      iii.   Expects to send to Trump
    e.   Studies
      i.   US Studies
    1.   NIH study to be out in October. But claims it is set for failure.
    2.   Be in ICU and/or on ventilator before using any drug – NIH standard
    3.   CDC says to wait until severe symptoms before using medicine
    4.   Bartlett says need to use the budesonide much earlier
     
      ii.   Spain and France are supposed to study this. Also University of Oxford
      iii.   Claims that scientific fact is something that is observable and reproducible. Claims that he has been following this by testing his patients
    f.   Said seems that there are malevolent forces (possibly persons with money as an interest/motivation) to wait until patients are sick
    g.   Opinion on masks
      i.   Pivots away from this
      ii.   Instead focuses on treatment
    h.   Government = socialism, communism
    i.   Opinion on vaccines
      i.   Would be no need for a vaccine
      ii.   Vaccine will not work – not a one-time shot. Rapidly mutating virus – 243 mutations determined in Iceland study in one month.

     
    2.   Analysis and Conclusion
     
    Overall, Bartlett claims to have found a silver bullet for COVID-19, and claims there is no need for any vaccine. I find his conclusion to be inconclusive – at best, he has successfully helped a few patients. However, there are no peer review studies of the effects of budesonide on COVID19, no published papers on the matter, and no proof that budesonide is the reason for the better health of COVID19 patients. To make a scientific conclusion on this, any reputable medical professional will tell you that the testing must go through a rigorous set of procedures, blind tests, etc – testing thousands of people. None of this has occurred yet. So no reasonable minded person can claim that he truly has a silver bullet cure.
     
    In the interview, Bartlett was asked how many patients he tested with budesonide, but shies away from telling the number of patients tested, saying he did not keep a tally. Whatever the number is, it is nowhere close to enough to get to a scientific conclusion.
     
    He may very well have found a cure, but in the absence of sufficient testing, it is unreasonable to claim a scientific conclusion that budesonide is a true cure. Until sufficient clinical trials, tests, peer-review articles are done, nobody can say with certainty that budesonide scientifically and without a doubt is a cure for covid19.
     
    A search online will indicate that several journalists and news stations have sought to determine if Bartlett’s claim is accurate. See below. The gist of it is similar to my conclusion above – there is not even close to enough clinical trials, tests, etc of the drug to definitively conclude that budesonide is a silver bullet.
     
    ·   KHOU-11, a local TV station in Houston, sought to determine Bartlett’s claim that inhaled steroids are the cure for steroids. They determined that the claim cannot be verified.The TV station spoke with Dr. Bindu Akkanti, associate professor of critical care medicine at McGovern Medical School at UT Health and attending physician at Memorial Hermann – “I wish it was as simple as that. If it was truly a silver bullet, and if it was truly a simple right, we would be using medications,” Akkanti said.  https://www.khou.com/article/news/verify/verify-texas-doctor-has-not-discovered-a-silver-bullet-cure-for-covid-19/285-ae945152-0ae7-400f-8470-eba13436164e
    ·   KHOU-11 also asked Akkanti about testing done in other countries, where Bartlett claims such countries are successfully using Budesonide as a cure against COVID-19. ““There are very small studies from each individual country that are coming through. But I think when we look at it on a large scale, there is no current signal that inhaled article steroids are preventing it or curing it,” Akkanti said. https://www.khou.com/article/news/verify/verify-texas-doctor-has-not-discovered-a-silver-bullet-cure-for-covid-19/285-ae945152-0ae7-400f-8470-eba13436164e
    ·   NewsWest 9 sought the advice of Midland Memorial Hospital – “There’s no scientific proof, no carefully peer review studies that prove the efficacy of those treatments” Russell Meyers, Midland Health CEO, said. https://www.newswest9.com/article/news/local/midland-memorial-hospital-says-inhaled-steroid-is-no-silver-bullet-for-covid-19/513-a30477f5-35fb-41cb-97fb-e8aaad6250b2
    ·   These hospital officials do not think Dr. Bartlett’s treatment is backed up enough in the medical community. https://www.newswest9.com/article/news/local/midland-memorial-hospital-says-inhaled-steroid-is-no-silver-bullet-for-covid-19/513-a30477f5-35fb-41cb-97fb-e8aaad6250b2
    ·   “I want to caution people if it sounds too good to be true and it is being described as the ‘silver bullet’, well it probably is too good to be true,” Wilson said. “The things that medical professional come out with quickly get disseminated.” https://www.newswest9.com/article/news/local/midland-memorial-hospital-says-inhaled-steroid-is-no-silver-bullet-for-covid-19/513-a30477f5-35fb-41cb-97fb-e8aaad6250b2
     
    Bartlett also claims that any sort of testing to be completed by the NIH is set-up for failure. His basis for saying this is that NIH requires testing to be done only when patients are very sick, Bartlett claims that budesonide works at a much earlier stage in the sickness. However, Bartlett seems to make a logical leap, and unfounded claim, that NIH will test budesonide only on patients who are in the latter stages of COVID19 sickness and not early on. I find this claim to be highly suspect – any reputable clinical study will test a drug at all phases of an illness, and will remove variables. So I do not think Bartlett’s claim that future tests by NIH, CDC of budesonide are setup for failure. This is just a conspiracy theory.
     
     

    ———————————————-

  6. Particularly head shaking to me was his answer to the question whether he believes masks should be worn. He effectively said he doesnt think masks are necessary because if a person catches COVID19, his silver bullet cure will cure them. Voila.

    Critical thinking reveals the following gaps:

    (1) A mask will help prevent the spread of the virus in the first place. This is important because we do not know the long term effects of the virus. There are some suggestions that it has effects on lungs and the brain. So it is best to prevent catching the virus in the first place by wearing a mask. A reasonable and prudent response would have been to advocate mask wearing, and as a backup use his treatment if a patient catches the virus.

    (2) He presumably is thinking that everone will have access to his silver bullet. Not sure that is correct – some people may not get tested early enough for his magic to work for any one of various reasons – patient doesnt have money or time to get tested, is lazy, etc. His cure requires the patient to be in early stages of the virus.

  7. So what do you have to say about a Oxford University study? Google “QUT and Oxford collaborate on clinical trial to test asthma inhalers as treatment for COVID-19” . Read the entire article to learn what they observed in their Practice that gave them the clue to do a Clinical Trial. Some times dumb Country doctors are smarter than the so called experts. At lest Dr. Bartlett has saved his own patients.

    1. Ralph, you seem to be missing the point. I didn’t call Richard Bartlett a “dumb country doctor.” I said he didn’t have the evidence to make the claims he was making and some of his claims were false. It could be that his treatment is effective. If so, that would be amazing. But it’s way too premature to make the bold claims he did when he doesn’t have the evidence to back it up. The QUT collaboration is the right way to do this – gather data and compare the treatment versus a placebo.

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