The World Health Organization and a number of national governments have changed their Covid-19 policies and treatments on the basis of flawed data from a little-known US healthcare analytics company, also calling into question the integrity of key studies published in some of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.
A Guardian investigation can reveal the US-based company Surgisphere, whose handful of employees appear to include a science fiction writer and an adult-content model, has provided data for multiple studies on Covid-19 co-authored by its chief executive, but has so far failed to adequately explain its data or methodology.
Data it claims to have legitimately obtained from more than a thousand hospitals worldwide formed the basis of scientific articles that have led to changes in Covid-19 treatment policies in Latin American countries. It was also behind a decision by the WHO and research institutes around the world to halt trials of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine. On Wednesday, the WHO announced those trials would now resume.
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.
An independent audit of the provenance and validity of the data has now been commissioned by the authors not affiliated with Surgisphere because of “concerns that have been raised about the reliability of the database”.
The Guardian’s investigation has found:
- 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 whose professional profile suggests writing is her fulltime job. Another employee listed as a marketing executive is an adult model and events hostess, who also acts in videos for organisations.
- 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, first raised in 2010.