The Doctor Behind the Disputed Covid Data


A college degree at 19. A medical school graduate 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.

Then the novel coronavirus hit and Dr. Desai seized the moment. With a Harvard professor, he produced two studies in May that almost instantly disrupted multiple clinical trials amid the pandemic.

One study’s findings were particularly dramatic, reporting that anti-malaria drugs like hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump promoted, were linked to increased deaths of Covid-19 patients. But that study and another were retracted in June by the renowned journals that had published them, weeks after researchers around the world suggested the data was dubious. Dr. Desai, who declined to share the raw information even with his co-authors, claimed it was culled from a massive trove acquired by Surgisphere, a business he started during his residency.

The now-tainted 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. And the anti-malaria drugs cited in the papers have continued to generate controversy, as new research prompted some scientists to petition for expanding their use against the coronavirus, despite Food and Drug Administration warnings against them.

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