The discrepancies in two influential studies over the efficacy of the effect of antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients by an insignificant US healthcare analytics company, which was later picked up by World Health Organization and a number of national governments to alter their response has now caught the attention of health experts, as per a report in The Guardian.
According to the report, a US-based company – Surgisphere, whose employees include a science fiction writer and an adult-content model, had provided data for multiple studies on coronavirus, which was co-authored by company’s chief executive, one Sapan Desai.
The data developed by the Surgisphere has been used in studies published in The Lancet and also New England Journal of Medicine, the world’s two most highly-cited medical journals, raising questions regarding the integrity of key studies published by these ‘renowned’ medical journals.
WHO halted trials of HCQ based on the study
The Chicago-based firm had claimed to have obtained data from more than a thousand hospitals worldwide, which was later used by several governments in Latin America to alter coronavirus treatment policies. The World Health Organization had also halted its trials of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine based on the ‘studies’ conducted by Surgisphere.
The medical journals – the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, had published studies based on Surgisphere data. The studies were co-authored by the firm’s chief executive, Sapan Desai.
According to the Guardian’s investigation, the employees at Surgisphere have little or no data or scientific background. An employee listed as a ‘science editor’ appears to be a science fiction author and fantasy artist. Another employee listed as a marketing executive in an adult content model and events hostess.
Further, the company has a very limited online presence, with just 100 followers on Linkedin and less than 200 on Twitter. The chief executive, Sapan Desai, has been named in three medical malpractice suits. Up to recently, the ‘Get in touch’ section of Surgisphere used to direct to the WordPress template of a dubious cryptocurrency webpage.
Surgisphere’s study on HCQ was based on dubious data
Based on the data given by the Surgisphere, the Lancet, on 22 May, had published a study which declared that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was associated with a higher mortality rate in coronavirus.
The Lancet study, to which Desai was one of the co-authors, claimed to have collected and studied Surgisphere data collected from nearly 15,000 coronavirus patients from 1,200 hospitals around the world, who received hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with antibiotics.
Shockingly, the negative findings of The Lancet prompted the WHO to halt the hydroxychloroquine arm of its global trials.
The claims by the Lancet study were soon taken seriously worldwide. Many media portals touted it and since US President Trump had emphasised on Hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment for COVID-19 symptoms, there was probably a sudden urgency to dismiss it.
Many large randomised trials of the drug were halted. And within days, the WHO, which was conducting a mega trial, halted it too.
Similarly, another study using the Surgisphere database, again co-authored by Desai, had discovered that the anti-parasite drug ivermectin reduced death rates in critical coronavirus patients. It was published online in the Social Science Research Network e-library, before peer-review or publication in a medical journal. This data was used by the Peruvian government to add ivermectin to its national coronavirus therapeutic guidelines.
However, glaring errors in the study were soon pointed out by many researchers. When Guardian Australia contacted five hospitals in Melbourne and 2 in Sydney, they denied any role and even stated that they have never been contacted by Surgisphere or have contributed data to its study in any way. The number of deaths mentioned in Australia due to COVID-19 also did not match the actual Australian database.
In addition, it was found that an Asian hospital was ‘accidentally’ added to the Australian database, as admitted by Desai.
Science journals to investigate the matter
On Wednesday, the science journal Lancet published an expression of concern about their hydroxychloroquine study.
Lancet editor Richard Horton said, “Given the questions raised about the reliability of the data gathered by Surgisphere, we have today issued an Expression of Concern, pending further investigation.”
“We are issuing an Expression of Concern to alert readers to the fact that serious scientific questions have been brought to our attention. We will update this notice as soon as we have further information,” said a statement issued by The Lancet on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the WHO has resumed the use of HCQ from Wednesday after the Lancet said that it was analysing the data and methods of the shoddy study on the anti-malarial drug.
Based on available data, the #COVID19 Solidarity Trial Data Safety & Monitoring Committee recommended there are no reasons to modify the trial protocol. The Executive Group endorsed the continuation of all arms of the Trial, including the use of hydroxychloroquine. https://t.co/r88DVEvZ3j pic.twitter.com/cYITShxcE7— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) June 3, 2020
Sapan Desai’s Surgisphere was founded in 2008, to publish textbooks. The Guardian report says nobody knows how the company suddenly became the owner of an international database of over 96,000 patients ad 1200 hospitals around the world.
Also, the employees listed by Surgisphere, 11 of them, have mentioned in the LinkedIn pages that they had joined the company just 2 months back. Many of them do not even have a background in science or statistics. Instead, experiences in strategy, editing, copywriting and ‘leadership’ are mentioned.