An obscure US healthcare analytics company has come under sharp scrutiny for the integrity of its key studies that were published in some of the world’s most prestigious medical journals. World Health Organization and several national governments changed their COVID-19 policies and treatment based on the faulty data provided by the company with a pornstar and a sci-fi writer on their payroll.
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On the basis of the flawed data, WHO and research institutes around the world halted the trails of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, touted as a “wonder drug” by President Trump. On Wednesday, WHO said in a press conference that those trials would now resume.
An investigation by the Guardian reveals that the US-based company Surgisphere is behind the data for multiple studies on Covid-19 that were published in top medical journals. Interestingly, the firm has not been able to explain its data and methodology used in the studies which are co-authored by the company’s chief executive Sapan Desai.
Two of the medical journals – the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine – published studies based on the data provided by the Surgisphere. Since the controversy, both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine have expressed concern about their respective published studies.
The investigation also found out that several of the Surgisphere employees had a questionable scientific background. One of the employees listed as a science editor appears to be a sci-fi writer while a marketing executive also moonlights as an adult model and event hostess.
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The company’s Linkedin page only had less than 100 followers and listed just six employees. The Twitter handle had only 170 followers with no tweets in the last three years. For a company that boasts of running one of the largest hospital databases in the world, its negligible online presence seems to raise more questions than it answers.
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Desai himself has been named in three medical malpractice lawsuits unrelated to the Surgisphere two of which were filed in November 2019. A lawsuit filed by a patient, Joseph Vitagliano, accused Desai and Northwest Community Hospital in Illinois, where he worked until recently, of being “careless and negligent”, leading to permanent damage following surgery.
On the basis of dubious data provided by Surgisphere, Lancet published a peer-reviewed study on May 22 which found that antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was associated with a higher mortality rate in Covid-19 patients and increased heart problems. The study, which listed Desai as one of the co-authors, claimed to have analyzed Surgisphere data collected from nearly 96,000 patients with Covid-19, admitted to 671 hospitals from their database of 1,200 hospitals around the world, who received hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with antibiotics.
The negative findings made headlines all around the world and prompted the WHO to halt the hydroxychloroquine trials. However, two days later, glaring errors were found in the Australian subset of the data. Using the Surgisphere data, the New England Journal of Medicine also published a peer-reviewed study that found out common heart medications such as angiotensin-converting–enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin-receptor blockers were not associated with a higher risk of harm in Covid-19 patients.
One of the questions that have left the scientific community stumped is how a company – launched in 2008 as a medical education company publishing textbooks – became the owner of the world’s largest international medical database.
Dr. James Todaro, who runs MedicineUncensored, a website that publishes the results of hydroxychloroquine studies, said: “Surgisphere came out of nowhere to conduct perhaps the most influential global study in this pandemic in the matter of a few weeks.”
When contacted by the Guardian, Desai revealed: “Surgisphere has been in business since 2008. Our healthcare data analytics services started at about the same time and have continued to grow since that time. We use a great deal of artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate this process as much as possible, which is the only way a task like this is even possible.”
What’s more concerning is that Surgisphere has not revealed the source of their data, for example, the names of the hospitals from where they collected the Covid-19 patient data.
Peter Ellis, the chief data scientist of Nous Group, an international management consultancy that does data integration projects for government departments, expressed concern that the Surgisphere database was “almost certainly a scam”. He argues that de-identifying patient data is not just about removing their names, rather it’s a big and difficult process that takes months to complete and involves network review boards, security people, and management.
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