The Bizarre Case of the Sketchy Covid-19 Dataset
What you should know about Surgisphere, the company at the center of a coronavirus research debacle
Update: This story has been updated with the latest news that both studies have been retracted.
Scientists and journalists have discovered that a little-known U.S. health care analytics company that provided data it claims to have obtained from over a thousand hospitals worldwide — data that has been used in multiple influential coronavirus studies — may not be what it seems.
The company is called Surgisphere and, as The Guardian reported on Wednesday, it only has a handful of employees — including a science editor who appears to be a science-fiction author. The company says it has data from nearly 100,000 people with Covid-19 from 1,200 hospitals and health facilities on six continents. It is founded by Sapan S. Desai, who is also the co-author of two papers now under investigation.
Two prominent journals, The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), released statements this week disclosing that they are reviewing studies co-authored by Desai after the science community raised concerns about the data from Surgisphere. Scientists specifically called out a study published in The Lancet on the use of antimalarial drugs for Covid-19 and a NEJM paper about the use of blood pressure medicine among people with Covid-19. Part of the reason the medical community became suspicious of the findings is that multiple health data experts said they had never heard of Surgisphere, and it’s unclear how a company so small could amass such a dataset (and also not be on researchers’ radars).
On Thursday, The Lancet announced that it is retracting the study. “Our independent peer reviewers informed us that Surgisphere would not transfer the full dataset, client contracts, and the full ISO audit report to their servers for analysis as such transfer would violate client agreements and confidentiality requirements. As such, our reviewers were not able to conduct an independent and private peer review and therefore notified us of their withdrawal from the peer-review process,” the journal said in a statement.
In an open letter to the authors of the NEJM study, over 100 scientists — including medical experts and data specialists — demanded more information on the data as well as independent verification. As the New York Times…