Another COVID-19 Data Debacle

This article is reprinted from the June 8, 2020 Newsletter from Pamela A. Popper, President, Wellness Forum Health

In another bizarre twist in the COVID-19 debacle, it appears that false data was published in two prominent medical journals without peer review, and that the World Health Organization relied on the unverified data in one of these articles in making decisions about treatments for COVID-19.

On May 22, 2020 the Lancet published a study reporting that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine (the older version) were linked to increased deaths in hospitals all over the world.[1] The paper was authored by Dr. Mandeep R. Mehra of Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Sapan S. Desai of Surgisphere, an Illinois-based company that had supposedly gathered data on tens of thousands of patients in over 1000 hospitals worldwide.

The authors reported that their data represented over 15,000 patients who received hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine and over 81,000 patients who did not receive these drugs. According to this paper, one in six patients taking only one of these drugs died; one in five taking chloroquine with an antibiotic died; and one in four taking hydroxychloroquine with an antibiotic died. The death rate for patients not taking these drugs was one in eleven. Additionally, serious arrhythmias were reported, with most occurring in the group taking hydroxychloroquine in combination with an antibiotic (8% vs 0.3% in patients not given any of these drugs or combinations).

The mainstream media was thrilled and this became a big story. President Trump had made positive comments about hydroxychloroquine during at least one of the daily White House press briefings, and had also reported taking it himself. The press regularly expresses disdain for Trump.

Fauci, on the other hand, had repeatedly said negative things about the drug and was much more enthusiastic about remdesivir, a new drug that costs thousands of dollars per patient, and produced results in clinical trials that were barely statistically significant. Even though Fauci has been wrong about just about everything since the COVID nonsense began, he is still adored by members of the media, who seem to wait with baited breath for each new erroneous statement he utters. The Lancet study fit in well with the false but repeated narrative – Trump is always wrong and Fauci is always right.

The Lancet paper had a major impact on both policy and research. The WHO stopped the hydroxychloroquine arm of its clinical trials.[2] Research concerning hydroxychloroquine in the UK and France was also halted. The COVID storytellers repeatedly reported that the issue was settled – science showed that hydroxychloroquine was a dangerous drug, and not appropriate for the treatment of COVID-19.

The Guardian was one of the first media outlets to question the Lancet study. According to the article, data from five Australian hospitals with 600 COVID-19 patients and 73 deaths were included in the analysis. But at the time the data was collected, there had been only 67 deaths recorded throughout Australia. The Guardian was able to confirm that the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System was not the source of the information. Health departments in New South Wales and Victoria, two of Australia’s most populous states, stated that the reported data did not reconcile with their data and that they did not provide data to these researchers.[3]

Guardian investigative reporters also looked into Surgisphere and reported that one of the firm’s science editors appeared to be a science fiction writer and a fantasy artist. One of the company’s marketing executives also was an adult model and events hostess. The company’s LinkedIn page shows only three employees as of June 3, making it highly unlikely that the company had the resources to gather and analyze such a large data base, which consisted of 96,032 patients who were admitted to hundreds of hospitals on six continents by April 14. Additionally, Guardian reports that until Jun 1 the “get in touch” link on Surgisphere’s website led to a cryptocurrency website.[4]

Researchers and writers at The Scientist also reported concerns about the study. The Lancet article reported that Surisphere’s registry included data from over 63,000 COVID patients admitted to 559 hospitals in North America by April 14. But Surgisphere CEO and founder Sapan Desai refused to provide the names of any of the hospitals when asked. The Scientist contacted some of the larger health systems in states reporting the most cases and deaths and did not find any who confirmed that they provided data to Surgisphere.[5]

Other researchers interviewed by The Scientist had doubts about the African data, noting that the quality of electronic health records in Africa made it highly unlikely that records for 4402 hospitalized patients could have been obtained from African countries by April 14, when at the time only 15,738 cases had been reported on the entire continent.[6]

At the same time, another article published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that patients with COVID-19 and with cardiovascular disease had an increased risk of dying in the hospital. This article reported data from 346 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Turkey by March 15.[7]

Open letters signed by over 140 scientists and physicians were sent to both the Lancet and the NEJM. The letter to the NEJM states that “countrywide, the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed at Istanbul Faculty of Medicine on the 9th of March. The second COVID-19 patient in that hospital was not seen until the 16th of March. The Turkish Ministry of Health reported a total of only 191 PCR positive cases by the 18th of March.”[8] In other words, the NEJM article reported more COVID-19 patients in Turkey than had been diagnosed at the time.

The letter to the Lancet expressed “both methodological and data integrity concerns” and listed, among other issues:
The study’s authors did not indicate the “severity” of the disease being treated. Was it early on in the COVID-19 progression or late in the process? The dosages of HCQ or CQ used were not disclosed
The authors have not adhered to “standard practices in the machine learning and statistics community. They have not released their code or data. There is no data/code sharing and availability statement in the paper.”
The countries and hospitals from which the data were obtained were not disclosed, and the authors have denied requests for that information.
The numbers of cases and deaths as well as the detailed data collection from Surgisphere-associated hospitals in Africa “seem unlikely.”
Reported ratios of HCQ to CQ are “implausible.”[9]

Both journals expressed concern about the data they published. On June 4, three of the authors of the Lancet paper retracted their study, claiming they were “unable to complete an independent audit of the data underpinning their analysis”…and “…that they can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources.”[10] The World Health Organization has resumed its research on the use of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19.

Issues concerning the NEJM article were still outstanding at the time this was written.

This debacle is just one more episode in a months-long misinformation campaign that has resulted in significant harm and outright devastation for several billion people worldwide. The deception continues. Not one health official has come forward and taken responsibility for his or her actions. It seems that a small group of powerful people have declared war on humanity. I do not know how this will end, but I don’t see the human race accepting a “new normal” in which the terms of our existence are dictated by terrible people who have demonstrated repeatedly that they have no concern for our welfare.


[1] Mehra MR, Desai SS, Ruschitzka F, Patel AN. “Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis.” Lancet May 22 2020 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31180-6
[2] WHO halts hydroxychloroquine trial for coronavirus amid safety fears.” The Guardian May 25 2020
[3] Davey M. “Questions raised over hydroxychloroquine study which caused WHO to halt trials for COVID-19.” The Guardian May 27 2020
[4] IBID
[5] Offord C. “Concerns Build Over Surgisphere’s COVID-19 Dataset.” The Scientist Jun 2 2020
[6] IBID
[7] Mehra MR, Desai SS, Kuy AR et al. “Cardiovascular disease, drug therapy, and mortality in Covid-19.” NEJM May 1 2020 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2007621
[8]https://zenodo.org/record/3873178#.XtmckdVKipr
[9]https://zenodo.org/record/3864691#.XthfzTpKhPb
[10] Retraction: “Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis”  https://www.thelancet.com/lancet/article/s0140673620313246