- Two studies on COVID-19 published by Drs. Sapan Desai, Amit Patel and Mandeep Mehra, were retracted after critics discovered discrepancies.
The COVID-19 crisis has put the spotlight on Indian American doctors like never before. Doctors and scientists with expertise in global health issues or government administrators and media personalities, Indian Americans in the medical field have become some of the most visible public faces of fighting the pandemic. Whether it’s CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta or former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy or Dr. Sejal Hathi, a resident physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston or Dr. Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute, there’s almost always a desi doctor at the forefront of efforts to decipher the pandemic.
According to American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin AAPI data, although Indian Americans constitute less than one percent of the country’s population, they account for 9 percent of the American doctors and physicians. One out of every seven doctors serving in the U.S. is of Indian origin, providing medical care to over 40 million Americans.
However, on the other end of the spectrum are doctors like vascular surgeon Sapan Desai, thoracic surgeon Amit Patel and cardiovascular expert Mandeep Mehra, who are making headlines for the wrong reasons.
According to Science magazine, Desai, Patel and Mehra are at the heart of a scandal which led to the retractions of two research papers related to COVID-19. The New York Times, in a detailed story on Desai, reported that the two studies “almost instantly disrupted multiple clinical trials amid the pandemic.”
The first paper, published on May 1, in The New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that COVID-19 could disproportionately affect people with cardiovascular disease, but it put to rest concerns that blood pressure medications were harmful. Data for the study was collected from 8,910 Covid patients at 169 hospitals in Asia, North America and Europe. Along with Desai, Patel and Mehra, the study was co-authored by SreRam Kuy and Timothy D. Henry.
The second paper, published May 22 in The Lancet, reportedly evaluated anti-malaria drugs that President Trump has promoted as antidotes to the coronavirus. The study revealed that patients treated with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were up to five times as likely to have abnormal heart rhythms as other patients — and were at higher risk of dying.” For this study, more that 100,000 patients affected with coronavirus from 671 hospitals on six continents were analyzed.
Immediately after the two studies were published, critics identified anomalies in the data. Science magazine says they doubted Surgisphere’s reach, “with a scant public track record in AI, few employees, and no publicly named scientific board.” Desai started Surgisphere during his residency years. Similarly, Desai’s refusal to release the raw patient data and agreements with hospitals for an audit, added to their doubts.
The Times report observed that discrepancy in the studies “helped sow confusion and erode public confidence in scientific guidance when the nation was already deeply divided over how to respond to the pandemic.”
Desai conducted the study with Mehra, medical director of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Heart and Vascular Center, and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Citing a statement Mehra provided to BWH, Science magazine said Mehra met another of the trio, cardiac surgeon Amit Patel, in “academic and medical circles.” Mehra said Patel, in turn, introduced him to Desai. However, the report added that Mehra had received compensation from Triple-Gene, a gene therapy company Patel co-founded to develop cardiovascular treatments.
Until recently, Desai was the director of Surgical Quality at Northwest Community Hospital. According to news reports, He was named as a defendant in three medical malpractice lawsuits filed in 2019. Earlier in 2016, Desai was sued after he performed surgery to remove plaque buildup from a 60-year-old man’s carotid artery, then failed to come to the hospital after he developed swelling in his neck that caused difficulty swallowing and breathing. The patient later died.
Desai told The Scientist that he “deems any lawsuit naming him to be unfounded.”
Several doctors who have worked with Desai in various capacities told the New York Times that “it became standard practice to double check anything Dr. Desai said about a patient, such as how the person had fared overnight or whether a test had been ordered.”
Desai, described by the New York Times as an overachieving and ambitious doctor, got a college degree at 19, and graduated from University of Illinois at Chicago medical school, with a Ph.D. at 27. “By the time he completed training in vascular surgery in 2014, Dr. Sapan Desai had cast himself as an ambitious physician, an entrepreneur with an M.B.A. and a prolific researcher published in medical journals,” the Times said.
After completing his general surgery training at Duke University, Desai spent one year there as faculty, and also completed his MBA online during that time. He completed his vascular surgery fellowship at the Texas Medical Center. Prior to joining Northwest Community Hospital, Desai was surgical faculty, vice chairman of Research, director of Quality, and director of the Surgical Skills Center at Southern Illinois University.
The Science magazine says that “Desai has a history of big aspirations and entrepreneurial ventures — some short-lived.” Desai had a science-fiction blog, corewardfront.com, which, according to Science magazine, “was meant to find the most parsimonious route for mankind to establish a meaningful presence in space.” In 2009, he wrote that the site would publish fiction “grounded in facts and reality,” adding, “the scientific method must be followed … religiously.” The blog is no longer published.
Patel started as a full-time faculty member at University of Utah School of Medicine in 2008. When he left Utah for Miami in July 2017, he was the professor of surgery and director of Clinical Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering. He joined University of Miami Health System the chief of Cardiac Surgery. He received his M.D. from Case Western Reserve University, did his internship and residency in surgery at Baylor University Medical Center, and completed a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Science magazine reported that Mehra was the only one to issue a personal statement of apology, for failing “to ensure that the data source was appropriate for this use.” The magazine noted that unlike Desai and Patel, Mehra “enjoys considerable support even after the unraveling of the recent studies.” Before moving to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, he was the head of the cardiology division of the University of Maryland. He is the author of more than 200 scholarly articles, editor of “The Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation.”