There’s an interesting article in the Guardian today exposing the small company behind a Lancet-published study from late May that claimed people with COVID-19 had a higher risk of death from hydroxychloroquine. It turns out that the Guardian found some very questionable information about the company, leading some to believe that the study is a fake.
Here’s what the Guardian found about the company and it’s CEO Sapan Desai:
- A search of publicly available material suggests several of Surgisphere’s employees 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 is an adult model and events hostess.
- The company’s LinkedIn page has fewer than 100 followers and last week listed just six employees. This was changed to three employees as of Wednesday.
- While Surgisphere claims to run one of the largest and fastest hospital databases in the world, it has almost no online presence. Its Twitter handle has fewer than 170 followers, with no posts between October 2017 and March 2020.
- Until Monday, the “get in touch” link on Surgisphere’s homepage redirected to a WordPress template for a cryptocurrency website, raising questions about how hospitals could easily contact the company to join its database.
- Desai has been named in three medical malpractice suits, unrelated to the Surgisphere database. In an interview with the Scientist, Desai previously described the allegations as “unfounded”.
- In 2008, Desai launched a crowdfunding campaign on the website Indiegogo promoting a wearable “next generation human augmentation device that can help you achieve what you never thought was possible”. The device never came to fruition.
- Desai’s Wikipedia page has been deleted following questions about Surgisphere and his history.
Lancet, the journal who published the study, and another has now issued an “expression of concern” about the study:
Two of the world’s leading medical journals – the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine – published studies based on Surgisphere data. The studies were co-authored by the firm’s chief executive, Sapan Desai.
Late on Tuesday, after being approached by the Guardian, the Lancet released an “expression of concern” about its published study. The New England Journal of Medicine has also issued a similar notice.
One of the biggest issues with the study is there have been errors found in the data, and hopsitals the study claimed were participants say they’ve never even heard of Surgisphere:
The Lancet study, which listed Desai as one of the co-authors, claimed to have analysed Surgisphere data collected from nearly 15,000 patients with Covid-19, admitted to 1,200 hospitals around the world, who received hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with antibiotics.
The negative findings made global news and prompted the WHO to halt the hydroxychloroquine arm of its global trials.
But only days later Guardian Australia revealed glaring errors in the Australian data included in the study. The study said researchers gained access to data through Surgisphere from five hospitals, recording 600 Australian Covid-19 patients and 73 Australian deaths as of 21 April.
But data from Johns Hopkins University shows only 67 deaths from Covid-19 had been recorded in Australia by 21 April. The number did not rise to 73 until 23 April. Desai said one Asian hospital had accidentally been included in the Australian data, leading to an overestimate of cases there. The Lancet published a small retraction related to the Australian findings after the Guardian’s story, its only amendment to the study so far.
The Guardian has since contacted five hospitals in Melbourne and two in Sydney, whose cooperation would have been essential for the Australian patient numbers in the database to be reached. All denied any role in such a database, and said they had never heard of Surgisphere. Desai did not respond to requests to comment on their statements.
Also with such a large collection of data that needed to be anonymized, it would normally take a huge company to take on such an effort:
One of the questions that has most baffled the scientific community is how Surgisphere, established by Desai in 2008 as a medical education company that published textbooks, became the owner of a powerful international database. That database, despite only being announced by Surgisphere recently, boasts access to data from 96,000 patients in 1,200 hospitals around the world.
When contacted by the Guardian, Desai said his company employed just 11 people. The employees listed on LinkedIn were recorded on the site as having joined Surgisphere only two months ago. Several did not appear to have a scientific or statistical background, but mention expertise in strategy, copywriting, leadership and acquisition.
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.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It would require many more researchers than it claims to have for this expedient and [size] of multinational study to be possible.”
Desai told the Guardian: “Surgisphere has been in business since 2008. Our healthcare data analytics services started 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.”
It is not clear from the methodology in the studies that used Surgisphere data, or from the Surgisphere website itself, how the company was able to put in place data-sharing agreements from so many hospitals worldwide, including those with limited technology, and to reconcile different languages and coding systems, all while staying within the regulatory, data-protection and ethical rules of each country.
Peter Ellis, the chief data scientist of Nous Group, an international management consultancy that does data integration projects for government departments, expressed concern that Surgisphere database was “almost certainly a scam”.
“It is not something that any hospital could realistically do,” he said. “De-identifying is not just a matter of knocking off the patients’ names, it is a big and difficult process. I doubt hospitals even have capability to do it appropriately. It is the sort of thing national statistics agencies have whole teams working on, for years.”
“There’s no evidence online of [Surgisphere] having any analytical software earlier than a year ago. It takes months to get people to even look into joining these databases, it involves network review boards, security people, and management. It just doesn’t happen with a sign-up form and a conversation.”
It sounds like this company essentially ‘punked’ the medical world with a bogus study and now these medical journals like Lancet are having to conduct their own investigation into the data. It’s sad because this has certainly had major consequences in how people view HCQ.
You know the old saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still puttin on its shoes”. And our garbage media is perfect for such a lie.