The malaria drug hydroxychloroquine has been touted by some, including President Trump, as nearly a miracle cure for COVID-19. But new preliminary evidence suggests that coronavirus patients fare no better on the drug than they do with standard care.
Researchers in Iran examined six studies, including small studies from France and China, that had suggested the drug might slightly shorten recovery time. All six studies compared hydroxychloroquine with standard care, which may include monitoring, fluids, oxygen and other supportive care as needed. Across all studies, there were no statistically relevant differences in the outcomes of patients who took hydroxychloroquine and those who didn’t, the scientists report April 20 at medRxiv.org.
Slightly more people taking the drug showed clearer lungs compared with those on standard treatment. And after taking the drug, the virus’s genetic material was also detectable in slightly fewer people than those who didn’t take the drug. But there were also more mild side effects, such as rashes and headaches, in the group taking hydroxychloroquine. The researchers caution that there were too few patients in the studies to make a definitive conclusion about whether the drug works.
Meanwhile, researchers in South Carolina and Virginia examined records from 368 male patients with COVID-19 admitted to U.S. Veterans Health Administration medical centers from March 9 through April 11. That retrospective study also showed no benefit to taking hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with azithromycin to treat the disease versus standard care, the team reports April 21 at medRxiv.org. Azithromycin is antibiotic that also works to dampen inflammation. Some studies are testing it in combination with hydroxychloroquine.
That team also found there were more deaths among men taking hydroxychloroquine relative to those not taking the drug. Hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin was not associated with a higher death rate.
Hydroxychloroquine did stop the coronavirus from infecting monkey cells in lab tests (SN: 3/19/20). The drug is used to treat people with autoimmune diseases, so researchers have hoped that it might also calm overactive immune reactions that damage lungs and other organs in severely ill COVID-19 patients.
Hydroxychloroquine is known to interfere with heart rhythms and can lead to sudden heart attacks.