Unreliable data: how doubt snowballed over Covid-19 drug research that swept the world

A vast database from a little-known company called Surgisphere has influenced rapid policy shifts as the world seeks treatments for Covid-19. But as researchers began to examine it more closely, they became increasingly concerned

Dr Carlos Chaccour had just woken up in Barcelona when he opened his laptop to read the latest Covid-19 research.

Usually, he would start the day by meditating, but that was proving difficult in the middle of a global pandemic.

Overnight, several colleagues had emailed him a large study that had just been published online which examined the effect of the anti-parasite drug ivermectin on Covid-19 hospital patients around the world.

Chaccour is known for his work with the research institute ISGlobal in Spain examining parasites and microbes, exploring how these vectors spread disease and what works to treat the infections they transmit. He is particularly interested in mosquito-killing drugs, especially ivermectin. So he was intrigued by the study, which was published on 14 April in a version known as “preprint”, which means it was made available online before it had been peer-reviewed or accepted by a medical journal.

“I saw the researchers had looked at this huge database … they included 169 hospitals in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America and 1,900 Covid-19 patients seen by hospitals in those countries by 1 March,” Chaccour says.

The study methodology said its data had been obtained from Surgisphere. The Surgisphere website says it owns a data analytics system called QuartzClinical which monitors global healthcare in real time through data collection from 1,200 international hospitals. Promotional material says the database “has led to advances in care for kidney failure, aneurysms, lymphedema, peripheral artery disease, colon cancer, and cardiovascular disease”.

The database sounded incredible.

But as Chaccour and other researchers began to look more closely, they quickly found some concerning anomalies. Over the next weeks those doubts would only increase. Surgisphere itself came under greater scrutiny, culminating in two of the world’s most prestigious medical journals reconsidering studies based on its data, an about-turn from the World Health Organization on research into a potential Covid-19 treatment, and a Guardian investigation that uncovered worrying inconsistencies in the Surgisphere story.

‘It was so weird’

Chaccour’s first surprise was that the study had found 52 Covid-19 patients who had received ivermectin. At the time, ivermectin was not being widely discussed as a potential Covid-19 treatment. Yet the study said patients around the world had already been receiving it.

The study also included data from three patients in Africa who, as of 1 March, were on mechanical ventilation and receiving ivermectin.

“But there were two patients in the entire continent alone at that time, let alone people on ventilators,” Chaccour says.

Chaccour, who has worked throughout Africa and knows African healthcare systems well, believes many hospitals there are not equipped with the electronic health systems required to be a part of such a database.

“And they’re supposed to be connected to a fancy automatic thing that gives all this data to a corporation in the US? It was so weird.”

Read the full article on The Guardian