The University of Utah has “mutually agreed” to terminate the faculty appointment of Amit Patel, who was among the authors of two retracted papers on Covid-19 and who appears to have played a key role in involving a little-known company that has ignited a firestorm of controversy.
“The terminated position was an unpaid adjunct appointment with the Department of Biomedical Engineering,” a university spokesperson told STAT. Patel had listed the affiliation on both papers, published in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. The spokesperson declined to comment on whether the decision was related to the retractions.
“The University of Utah does not comment on reasons surrounding termination of academic appointments,” the spokesperson said.
Late Sunday, after publication of this story, Patel tweeted he had “verbally terminated” his affiliation with the University of Utah a week ago, and that the relationship had ended formally this past Friday. “There is a much bigger story for which I still do not have the information,” he wrote.
The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine both announced the retraction of papers on which Patel was a co-author within hours on Thursday. The paper in the Lancet, in particular, received widespread attention because it raised safety concerns about the drug hydroxychloroquine based on what was purported to be a huge amount of data collected from health records from hundreds of hospitals all around the world.
Among other consequences of the paper, the World Health Organization paused enrollment of part of a clinical trial meant to test the drug.
The lead author was Mandeep Mehra, the medical director of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Heart and Vascular Center and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation. Along with his co-authors, he had received the data from a small company known as Surgisphere, run by CEO Sapan Desai.
How did Mehra meet Desai, and become connected to Surgisphere? “Dr. Patel introduced them,” a spokesperson for the Brigham told STAT. The spokesperson said Mehra knew Patel “through academic and medical circles.”
In his tweets on Sunday, Patel said that he was related to Dr. Desai by marriage. “That’s old news,” he wrote. “Many people from the Brigham were at that wedding, and media knew about it.” The bigger story, he wrote, was that despite requests from other authors for data, he does not have information from Surgisphere, he wrote. On Friday, STAT had asked Mehra if Patel and Desai were brothers-in-law. “Dr. Mehra indicated that he learned of that relationship today,” Mehra’s spokesperson said.
After independent researchers raised questions about the papers, Surgisphere issued a statement defending its work. Both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed the papers, and then issued expressions of concern. The retractions were issued after Surgisphere said it could not share its data with an independent institute Mehra had contacted to audit the data.
Mehra said through the spokesperson that Surgisphere claimed to possess certification for data acquisition, data warehousing, data analytics, and data reporting from the International Standards Organization.
“I did not do enough to ensure that the data source was appropriate for this use,” Mehra said in a statement. “For that, and for all the disruptions — both directly and indirectly — I am truly sorry.”
Surgisphere has not issued a statement since the retractions were made. Desai did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.