By Deena Beasley | Reuters
A nationwide study submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine found that hydroxychloroquine — a malaria drug touted by President Trump has a strong candidate for COVID19 therapy — does not benefit coronavirus patients and could possibly even harm them.
There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines specifically for the new coronavirus. But decades old hydroxychloroquine has been widely used in an attempt to alter the course of the COVID-19 respiratory illness based on anecdotal reports that it may provide some benefit.
An analysis of Veterans Health Administration (VA) data found that 28% of 97 patients given hydroxychloroquine along with standard care died, compared with a death rate of 11% for the 158 patients that did not receive the drug. The death rate was 22% for the 113 patients given hydroxychloroquine plus the antibiotic azithromycin.
The research, which is awaiting publication in a medical journal, is not the result of a clinical trial. It analyzed medical records from 368 men hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus infection at VA centers who died or were discharged by April 11, according to the paper posted online for researchers.
The severe threat posed by the new coronavirus has encouraged sharing within the scientific community of “preprints” – the practice of researchers posting their findings prior to external checks, scrutiny or validation. The study authors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
After taking patients’ individual characteristics into account, researchers calculated that the risk of death was more than double with patients who who received hydroxychloroquine.
Hydroxychloroquine also appeared to have no impact on a patients’ need for breathing support. Rates of mechanical ventilation were 13% for those who got the drug versus 14% for patients who received only supportive care.
Even though there is not yet scientific evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19, doctors have said they are generally comfortable prescribing the inexpensive drug, which has also been used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
But doctors at major medical centers say they have not seen convincing evidence that it provides a benefit and there are potential heart and vision risks for some patients.
Numerous randomized trials are underway in the United States and elsewhere, aiming to answer the question of whether the drug has a role to play in the pandemic that has infected more than 2.5 million people worldwide and killed about 176,000.