President Donald Trump revealed that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine, a once-a-day pill an anti-malaria drug, as a preventive measure against coronavirus infection. He has been promoting the drug since March, which he called a game-changer when combined with an antibiotic called azithromycin, despite reservations of doctors and scientists on the same.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, which has currently infected over 5 million people and killed over 300,000, efforts to find effective treatments/vaccine have been ongoing. The drugs being tested range from repurposed flu treatments to failed Ebola drugs, blood pressure and arthritis drugs, and malaria treatments.
The drug in question that President Trump has been taking and promoting, hydroxychloroquine, is also known as Plaquenil. It is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as a prescription drug used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
The White House issued a statement by President’s Trump doctor, Sean P Conley, which concluded:
After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relevant risks.
According to reports, there was a surge in prescription for the drug since President Trump started promoting it. The drug is currently still being used in clinical trials to determine its efficacy.
In the United States, a nationwide trial began on April 2. It is also in controlled use in France, India and several Middle Eastern and African countries.
A study found that chloroquine, which is closely related to hydroxychloroquine and also treats malaria, could block the coronavirus from invading cells, which replicate and cause illness.
However, further studies found that hydroxychloroquine failed to prevent or treat influenza and other viral illnesses.
According to reports, China and France said that hydroxychloroquine seemed to help patients, especially mild cases, when combined with other drugs. The studies were however small and did not use proper control groups (number of patients carefully selected to match those in the experimental group but who are not given the drug being tested).
The China study involved 62 patients only. The French study, on the other hand, was discredited by scientists, citing its failure to meet the “expected standard”.
In late March, the FDA authorized ‘emergency use‘ of the drug for a limited number of hospitalized cases. However, on April 24, they issued a safety warning on the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine on coronavirus patients.
Among the risks given were that it could cause abnormalities in heart rhythms, increase insulin levels which could lead to severe hypoglycemia in diabetes patients, and possible destruction of red blood cells. Other side effects are as explained in this FDA health care provider fact sheet.
Currently, best practice to prevent coronavirus infection is to follow guidelines and measures recommended by public health authorities such as practising social distancing, wearing masks and regular hand washing with soap or using approved sanitizers.
As of now, there is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine can prevent coronavirus infection. However, research and testing are still ongoing to determine whether this is possible or not and until then, the claim should be treated as FALSE.