Antimalarial drugs touted by the White House as possible COVID-19 treatments appeared to be not just ineffective, but downright deadly. A study published on 22 May in The Lancet used hospital records procured by a little-known data analytics company called Surgisphere to conclude that coronavirus patients taking chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine were more likely to show an irregular heart rhythm—a known side effect thought to be rare—and were more likely to die in the hospital.
Within days, some large randomized trials of the drugs—the type that might prove or disprove the retrospective study’s analysis—ended. Solidarity, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) megatrial of potential COVID-19 treatments, paused recruitment into its hydroxychloroquine arm.
Then, the Lancet results have began to unravel—and Surgisphere, which provided patient data for two other high-profile COVID-19 papers, has come under withering online scrutiny from researchers and amateur sleuths. They have pointed out many red flags in the Lancet paper, including the astonishing number of patients involved and details about their demographics and prescribed dosing that seem implausible. “It began to stretch and stretch and stretch credulity,” says Nicholas White, a malaria researcher at Mahidol University in Bangkok.
The Lancet issued an Expression of Concern (EOC) saying “important scientific questions have been raised about data” in the paper and noting that “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.”
The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) issued its own EOC about a second study using Surgisphere data, published on 1 May. The paper reported that taking certain blood pressure drugs including angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors didn’t appear to increase the risk of death among COVID-19 patients, as some researchers had suggested. (Several studies analyzing other groups of COVID-19 patients support the NEJM results.) “Recently, substantive concerns have been raised about the quality of the information in that database,” an NEJM statement noted. “We have asked the authors to provide evidence that the data are reliable.”
A third COVID-19 study using Surgisphere data has also drawn fire. In a preprint first posted in early April, Surgisphere founder and CEO Sapan Desai and co-authors conclude that ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug, dramatically reduced mortality in COVID-19 patients. In Latin America, where ivermectin is widely available, that study has led government officials to authorize the drug—although with precautions—creating a surge in demand in several countries.
Chicago-based Surgisphere has not publicly released the data underlying the studies, but today Desai told Science through a spokesperson that he was “arranging a nondisclosure agreement that will provide the authors of the NEJM paper with the data access requested by NEJM.”