The Scottish government has cast doubt on claims of co-operation over health data with Surgisphere, a US company, that is at the heart of controversy over halted coronavirus drug trials.
The questions about Surgisphere’s claims of working with NHS Scotland have come after the retraction by three of its authors of a study in The Lancet journal on a potential Covid-19 drug that used the company’s data.
The Lancet research found that hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug touted as a coronavirus treatment by US president Donald Trump, had no positive effects on patients. The fourth co-author was Sepan Desai, founder of Surgisphere.
Surgisphere says on its website that it previously “collaborated” with Scotland’s NHS to “share data, develop clinical management protocols, and implement best practices” to reduce post-surgery complications.
But a Scottish government spokesperson said there was “no current or past contractual arrangement” between Surgisphere and NHS Scotland.
“At no point have Surgisphere had any access to NHS Scotland data,” the spokesperson said. “Surgisphere are not — and have never been — on our approved supplier list.”
Scientists and medical journals have been criticised for relying on data from Surgisphere to write papers that are influencing the treatment of Covid-19 patients around the world.
The doubts around the company intensified on Friday when Elsevier, a scientific publishing house and owner of The Lancet, told the Financial Times it would review “approximately 20 original research articles” that contain Surgisphere data.
In a case study on its website, which is dated April 2019 and illustrated with a photograph of Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Surgisphere said its work with the NHS in Scotland resulted in a 14 per cent decrease in post-surgical complications and infections.
“This avoided hundreds of unnecessary hospitalisations, enabling this Glasgow hospital to deliver higher quality healthcare at a more affordable cost,” the case study said.
The only connection between Scotland’s health system and Surgisphere that Scottish government officials were able to confirm on Friday was a 2019 academic literature review. A member of staff at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Dr Desai were among 10 co-authors. However, the company was not referenced in the review, which did not appear to have any relevance to the co-operation claimed on its website.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which is responsible for the QUEH and all other public hospitals in the region, said: “We have had no interaction with this company and will be asking for the removal of the image of one of our hospitals from its website.”
The Scottish case study on Surgisphere’s website suggests a wide-ranging, months-long project. “Surgisphere partnered with leaders at the NHS to utilise big data and machine learning to establish protocols to standardise care, develop cost-effective surveillance . . . and streamline supplier management,” the case study says.
Surgisphere did not respond to requests for comment.
The company’s website features other case studies involving Surgisphere, but few have identifiable details that would make it easy to check the claims of successful co-operation.
The WHO said this week that it would resume trials of the drug after pausing them in the wake of the, now-discredited, Lancet study.
Its lead author Mandeep Mehra, a Harvard cardiologist, apologised on Thursday. He said he hadn’t done enough to ensure the source of data was appropriate because of his “hope to contribute this research during a time of great need”.
The Lancet said institutional reviews of Surgisphere’s research collaborations were “urgently needed”.
A separate study on coronavirus and heart drugs, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and used Surgisphere data, was also retracted by all its authors, including Dr Desai and Dr Mehra. The journal had already issued a formal “expression of concern”.