Who’s to blame? These three scientists are at the heart of the Surgisphere COVID-19 scandal

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Instead of covering this up or ignoring until people forget, they’re actually running an article exposing the story behind the bizarre rushed studies and subsequent retractions. And they even call it a scandal.

Three unlikely collaborators are at the heart of the fast-moving COVID-19 research scandal, which led to retractions last week by The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and the withdrawal of an online preprint, after the trove of patient data they all relied on was challenged. The three physician-scientists never were at the same institution nor had they ever before written together, but they are the only authors in common on the disputed papers, and the other co-authors all have ties to at least one of them. Their partnership, which seized a high-impact role during a global public health crisis, has now ended disastrously.

It’s a detailed story and examines the three participants in detail.

The first author for both retracted papers was cardiac surgeon Mandeep Mehra, an eminent Harvard University professor who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and is known internationally for cardiovascular medicine and heart transplants. He provided the kind of gravitas that can fast-track papers to leading journals. In a statement provided by BWH, Mehra said he had met another of the trio, cardiac surgeon Amit Patel, in “academic and medical circles,” and that Patel had introduced him to Sapan Desai, a vascular surgeon and founder of Surgisphere, the tiny company that supplied the data. Journal disclosures, however, also indicate Mehra received compensation from Triple-Gene, a gene therapy company Patel co-founded to develop cardiovascular treatments.

It breaks down their stories individually.

Sapan Desai

Desai had a history of convincing respected researchers of his skill and integrity. One of them, Gilbert Upchurch, department of surgery chair at the University of Florida, wrote last year in a journal commentary that he had only brief encounters with Desai but had nonetheless mentored him remotely and developed an online friendship with him. Upchurch placed the scientist in a group of “amazing and talented young vascular surgeons.”

Amit Patel

Before and after his stint at the University of Miami, which appears to have started in late 2016 or early 2017, Patel’s academic home was the University of Utah. He started as a full-time faculty member at Utah in 2008 and kept that position until he left for Miami. The website for Foldax, a heart valve company that he serves as medical adviser, describes him as a “Tenured Professor of Surgery in the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Utah School of Medicine and Director of Clinical Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering at the University of Utah.”

Mandeep Mehra

In contrast, Mehra—author of more than 200 scholarly articles, editor of The Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation, and head of the cardiology division of the University of Maryland before moving to BWH in 2012—enjoys considerable support even after the unraveling of the recent studies. “Obviously, you don’t rise to the position he’s risen to without being ambitious, but I’ve never had any indication whatsoever that he would do anything unethical,” says Keith Aaronson, a cardiologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who collaborated with Mehra on several studies, including a clinical trial of a mechanical pump for heart failure patients.

Mehra, the first author on both retracted papers, 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 ScienceMag story expands on the backgrounds and stories of each of these researchers in detail. It’s well worth a read.

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