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Behind the Database

The doctor who founded Surgisphere, the company whose database was used in two now-retracted COVID-19 studies, has a history of self-aggrandizement and taking shortcuts, the New York Times reports.

Sapan Desai, who started Surgisphere during residency, graduated college at 19, earned both an MD and a PhD, and later an MBA, but as the Times reports, there were questions about his performance during his medical training. In particular, other residents and doctors tell it that they couldn't rely on Desai's accounts of patients' status or treatment. "You couldn't trust what he said," Vanessa Olcese, who worked with Desai at Duke University Medical Center, tells the Times. "You would verify everything that he did and take everything he did with a grain of salt." 

According to the Times, Desai resigned from Northwest Community Hospital in Illinois around the time the pandemic began, and he started offering Surgisphere's database of electronic health data — the existence of which the Times says has not been confirmed — as a research tool. In May, two papers relying on the database were published, one in the Lancet and one in the New England Journal of Medicine, but inconsistencies between Surgisphere's data and data from other sources raised concerns about their conclusions. The papers were retracted, but not before they "disrupted multiple clinical trials amid the pandemic," the Times notes.