Indian origin doctors in the US fight charges of fake research based on fake data
Three Indian-American doctors find themselves at the centre of a raging medical research scandal, raising questions of ethics, conflict of interest and are also charged with relying on fake data
Dr Amit Patel, one of the three Indian doctors in the United States at the centre of a raging medical research scandal, has had his faculty position terminated by the University of Utah, where he was the chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery.
The other two, Dr Mandeep Mehra, an MD from Harvard, and Dr Sapan Desai, a surgeon in Chicago, have been charged with unethical practices. Mehra has tendered an unconditional apology and confessed that he had written or lent his name as lead investigator to several research papers without accessing the data supplied by Desai. Patel too has distanced himself from Desai, who happens to be his dal brother-inlaw. Patel who apparently introduced Mehra to Desai, has also distanced himself from the brother-in-law. The three collaborated and wrote several research papers in reputed medical journals, promoting or debunking use of specific drugs and their side effects while dealing with their efficacy in treating COVID-19 patients.
The pattern was the same. Desai’s firm Surgisphere, located in an upscale residential area outside Chicago, had supplied the data based on which the trio allegedly drew their conclusions. Both Patel and Mehra claimed to be lead investigators with access to the data which they claimed to have analysed. A study by the trio appeared in The Lancet in May in which it was claimed that the anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine, promoted by Donald Trump as a magic cure for COVID and large number of the medicine was supplied by India to the US at the request of the US President, was actually not effective and had led to a higher mortality among patients.
The WHO immediately advised that the use of the drug be stopped. This led to a rival lobby question the data supplied by Surgisphere, which is a 12-year old company which began as a book publisher but which claimed to be dealing in data analytics. The study by the trio had claimed to have looked at data from 671 hospitals across six continentsrelated to 96,000 patients. The data claimed that 81,000 hospitalised patients were not given HCQ but 15,000 were given the drug.
But Surgisphere was found to have just six employees besides Desai. The Science Editor turned out to be a writer of science fiction. And the marketing executive turned out to be a part time ‘adult’ model, a euphemism for a‘porn star’. The company’s Linkedin page had less than 100 followers and its Twitter handle had only 170 followers with no tweets in the last three years. “For a company that boasts of running one of the largest hospital databases in the world, its negligible online presence raised disturbing questions”, reported one of the several science journals pursuing the case.
Desai defended his data but refused to disclose even the names of the hospitals. Client confidentiality was cited by him as one of the reasons. But a claims made on its website stating that Surgisphere had collaborated with the National Health Service in Scotland was denied by the latter. Asked how his company could have accessed and processed such a large data in such a short time, Desai claimed that he had taken recourse to ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and Machine Learning. It was not humanly possible to process the data manually, he explained.
But experts pointed out that Surgisphere would have required the services of a small army of professionals in different fields, including lawyers and data analysts, to process the data and make sense of them. But Desai’s company simply didn’t seem to have the manpower and resources to pull off such a feat.
Medical Journals, keen to publish scientific studies on COVID-19, were either careless or were paid in some form or the other to publish the studies, say critics.
Medical journals also need advertisements to survive and the pharmaceutical industry generously advertised in The Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), they point out. The journals also charge a fees for publishing research papers, fees which is prohibitive for most serious scientists. A higher fees is apparently charged for ‘pre-print’ research papers which are not peer reviewed.
But the papers authored by Desai, Mehra and Patel in both The Lancet and in NEJM were actually peer reviwed, thus raising questions of ethics and reliability of medical research. Said a medical professional on condition of anonymity, “This racket has been going on for a long time. Pharmaceutical industry, which stand to make money, pay both doctors and the journals millions of Dollars to publish what is essentially fake data and analyses”.
The HCQ study was not funded by any drug company, private or public donor, or political organisation, Surgisphere noted in a statement after the controversy broke out, unwittingly lending credence to the swirling suspicion. The admission by Patel and Mehra that the data had been validated by Desai alone raised questions about their conduct in lending their names as principal investigators, implying that they had access to original data.