The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) has long been considered a gold standard in research, as its reviews take into account all available empirical evidence to reach conclusions about any given topic. A systematic review is essentially a “study of studies,” which can generate “authoritative and reliable information.”1
Their reviews are then updated every few years to ensure they reflect the latest research2 and are considered valuable decision-making tools for researchers, health care workers and policy makers alike.
Unfortunately, Cochrane’s unbiased reputation has been tarnished, and its editor in chief, Karla Soares-Weiser, appears to have sold out to the mainstream narrative, going so far as to throw her own researchers under the bus in the process. It all stems back to a study on masks — one of the most controversial topics of the pandemic.
Cochrane Review Finds Masks Are Worthless
A team of researchers led by Tom Jefferson of the University of Oxford has been studying “interventions for the interruption or reduction of the spread of respiratory viruses” since 2006. Beginning in 2010, they began focusing on “physical interventions,” — including screening at entry ports, isolation, quarantine, physical distancing, personal protection, hand hygiene, face masks, glasses and gargling — to prevent respiratory virus transmission.3
The review was updated in 2011, 2020 and again in 2023.4 The latest update added 11 new randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and cluster-RCTs, six of which were conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, for a total number of 78 RCTs reviewed. In terms of medical and surgical masks, the team found “moderate-certainty evidence” that they’re useless compared to no masks:5
“Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness (ILI)/COVID‐19 like illness compared to not wearing masks … Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of laboratory‐confirmed influenza/SARS‐CoV‐2 compared to not wearing masks.”
Even in the case of N95 and P2 respirators, no clear benefit was found. In the study’s plain language summary, it’s noted:6
“Four studies were in healthcare workers, and one small study was in the community. Compared with wearing medical or surgical masks, wearing N95/P2 respirators probably makes little to no difference in how many people have confirmed flu (5 studies; 8407 people); and may make little to no difference in how many people catch a flu‐like illness (5 studies; 8407 people), or respiratory illness (3 studies; 7799 people).”
Cochrane Editor Calls Mask Study ‘Inaccurate and Misleading’
During the pandemic, you may remember, magical thinking relating to masks created one of the most polarized debates in U.S. history and led to “anti-maskers” being labeled as “grandma killers.”7 So you can imagine the uproar when Cochrane released its findings.
True to form, The New York Times got involved and columnist Zeynep Tufekci published an opinion piece titled, “Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work,”8 in rebuttal and a video rebuttal that you can view below.
“Tufekci argued that despite no high-quality data, we could conclude, based on poor evidence, that masks do work,” Maryanne Demasi, Ph.D., a former medical scientist with the University of Adelaide and former reporter for ABC News in Australia, reported on Substack. “Tufekci also reached out to Cochrane for comment, and presumably, pressured Cochrane into publishing a statement on its website.”9
In the statement, Soares-Weiser, Cochrane’s editor in chief, stated the finding that “masks don’t work” is an “inaccurate and misleading interpretation,” and they were “engaging with the review authors with the aim of updating the Plain Language Summary and abstract.”10 “Cochrane’s statement was interpreted widely as an ‘apology,’ and in some cases, tweeters11 believed the review was ‘retracted,’” Demasi explained.12
Authors: We Don’t Change Reviews Based on ‘What Media Wants’
Demasi spoke with lead author Jefferson about the unexpected statement. “It was upsetting,” Jefferson said. “Cochrane has thrown its own researchers under the bus again. The apology issued by Cochrane is from Soares-Weiser, not from the authors of the review.”13
Demasi also interviewed Jefferson after the mask study was initially published, and he was clear about its findings, stating, “There is just no evidence that they make any difference. Full stop.”14
Noting that there wasn’t much change in the findings from the 2020 review to 2023, Jefferson said the study was ready to be released in early 2020, as the pandemic was starting, “but Cochrane held it up for seven months before it was finally published in November 2020. Those seven months were crucial. During that time, it was when policy about masks was being formed. Our review was important, and it should have been out there.”15
He believes that Cochrane intentionally delayed publication of the mask study until it could massage the results to fit with the narrative that masks work:16
“For some unknown reason, Cochrane decided it needed an ‘extra’ peer-review. And then they forced us to insert unnecessary text phrases in the review like ‘this review doesn’t contain any covid-19 trials,’ when it was obvious to anyone reading the study that the cut-off date was January 2020.
… During those 7 months, other researchers at Cochrane produced some unacceptable pieces of work, using unacceptable studies, that gave the ‘right answer.’”…