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June 3, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – New questions have been raised about the credibility of a recent study that drove several world governments to cancel trials on the potential COVID-19 treatment hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), following a media investigation into the company behind it.
HCQ is an FDA-approved drug developed in the 1950s to treat malaria, and has been commonly used since as a treatment for autoimmune conditions and arthritis. The FDA has not officially approved its use for the coronavirus, but has allowed it “to be distributed and prescribed by doctors to hospitalized teen and adult patients with COVID-19, as appropriate, when a clinical trial is not available or feasible.” (At the same time, the FDA warns not to use it outside of trials or hospitals.)
In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, scientists began researching its potential applications in treating the new virus – a development that was quickly promoted by President Donald Trump, turning it into a political lightning rod.
Several early studies showed promise, though another study published last month in The Lancet purported to not only find “no benefit” to using HCQ, but instead finding “decreased in-hospital survival and an increased frequency of ventricular arrhythmias.” The news led the French High Council for Public Health (HCSP) to recommend against prescribing the drug outside of clinical trials. Belgium and Italy banned the use of HCQ as a COVID-19 treatment as well, citing safety concerns.
Now, however, reporting by The Guardian has called that study into question. The paper reveals that the study was based on data from an American company called Surgisphere, which appears to have been grossly misrepresenting its credentials.
Surgisphere was established in 2008 as a medical textbook publisher, yet recently began claiming to possess one of the world’s most robust medical databases, with information on 96,000 patients in 1,200 hospitals worldwide – a claim critics say strains credulity.
“Surgisphere came out of nowhere to conduct perhaps the most influential global study in this pandemic in the matter of a few weeks,” said Dr James Todaro of the MedicineUncensored website. “It doesn’t make sense. It would require many more researchers than it claims to have for this expedient and [size] of multinational study to be possible.”
“Several of Surgisphere’s employees have little or no data or scientific background,” including a “science editor” who is actually a science-fiction author, The Guardian’s investigation found. “While Surgisphere claims to run one of the largest and fastest hospital databases in the world, it has almost no online presence,” and until recently its online contact link “redirected to a WordPress template for a cryptocurrency website, raising questions about how hospitals could easily contact the company to join its database.”
Further, Surgisphere chief executive Sapan Desai, who is listed as one of the Lancet study’s coauthors, is named in three medical malpractice lawsuits.
As for the study itself, The Guardian contacted several hospitals in Australia following discrepancies between data on COVID-19 deaths supposedly obtained from them and numbers reported by Johns Hopkins University, all of whom replied that “they had never heard of Surgisphere” and never provided information to its database.
“Surgisphere has been in business since 2008, Desai claims. “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.”
Peter Ellis, chief data scientist for the international management consulting firm Nous Group, says Surgisphere’s database is “almost certainly a scam,” because it’s “not something that any hospital could realistically do,” and there is “no evidence online of [Surgisphere] having any analytical software earlier than a year ago.”
“De-identifying is not just a matter of knocking off the patients’ names, it is a big and difficult process,” he explained. “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.”
Following these revelations, The Lancet issued an “expression of concern” Wednesday regarding “important scientific questions” about the study’s data.
“Although an independent audit of the provenance and validity of the data has been commissioned by the authors not affiliated with Surgisphere and is ongoing, with results expected very shortly, we are issuing an Expression of Concern to alert readers to the fact that serious scientific questions have been brought to our attention,” the statement reads. “We will update this notice as soon as we have further information.”
On May 19, President Trump revealed he had been taking HCQ and a zinc supplement for “a few weeks” as a prophylactic (though he has since stopped). He has repeatedly tested negative for the coronavirus.
As of June 3, the world is estimated to have seen more than 6.5 million COVID-19 cases, with more than 384,000 deaths and 3.1 million recoveries. An estimated 42% of those deaths across the United States and more than a dozen other countries have come from nursing homes.