News and Commentary

Medical Journal Issues “Expression Of Concern” Over Study On Alleged Dangers Of Hydroxychloroquine
A bottle and pills of Hydroxychloroquine sit on a counter at Rock Canyon Pharmacy in Provo, Utah, on May 20, 2020. - US President Donald Trump announced May 18 he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for almost two weeks as a preventative measure against COVID-19. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP) (Photo by GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images)
GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images

A widely reported on study published by The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, warning of increased heart complications and chance of death for coronavirus patients taking hydroxychloroquine may be unsound.

The Lancet and another medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), each issued an “Expression of Concern” on Wednesday for studies coauthored by Dr. Sapan Desai, founder of Surgisphere. Desai’s company claims to manage a database with information on 96,000 patients in 1,200 hospitals around the world.

The Lancet study sparked global concerns over the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus, despite the drug’s decades-old history and proven efficacy as an anti-malarial treatment. The study prompted the World Health Organization to cut its research funding into hydroxychloroquine. France stopped using the drug on COVID-19 patients, and the United Kingdom cut clinical trials involving hydroxychloroquine.

The medical journals announced they were reviewing two different studies after The Guardian reported on implausible and contradictory statements and claims made by Desai and Surgisphere, launched in 2008 originally as a medical textbook publisher. The Lancet study focused on the health impacts of hydroxychloroquine, a decades-old treatment for malaria and potential coronavirus treatment touted by President Trump. The NEJM study tracked the use of several common heart medications on patients with COVID-19.

Questions over the veracity of the hydroxychloroquine study began after The Guardian Australia published a May 27 story on discrepancies between the study’s claims on COVID-19 death totals in Australia and data reported by Johns Hopkins University. The study claimed that 73 Australians had died from COVID-19 by April 21, but Johns Hopkins did not report Australia hitting that number until two days later. Desai blamed the discrepancy on a classification error; Surgisphere accidentally included an Asian hospital in the data set for Australia.

More than 120 doctors and medical professionals sent an open letter to The Lancet editor Richard Horton on May 28 outlining ten problems with the study and requesting that Horton make the underlying data and methods available for other experts to review.

“The authors have not adhered to standard practices in the machine learning and statistics community. They have not released their code or data,” the letter says. “There was no ethics review.”

“There was no mention of the countries or hospitals that contributed to the data source and no acknowledgments to their contributions. A request to the authors for information on the contributing centres was denied,” the letter continues. “Data from Australia are not compatible with government reports. Surgisphere have since stated this was an error of classification of one hospital from Asia. This indicates the need for further error checking throughout the database.”

Desai claims his company employs 11 people, but Surgisphere’s LinkedIn page listed six employees last week, then just three employees on Wednesday. Two of those employees are a known science fiction writer and an adult content model. Several of the employees listed had no scientific or statistical experience, according to The Guardian.

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