Coronavirus: Hydroxychloroquine fails to prevent COVID-19 in a meticulous study

Alphonse Joseph

Washington, June 04: A malaria drug, that US President Donald Trump took to try to prevent COVID-19 proved ineffective for that in the first large, high-quality study to test it in people in close contact with someone with the disease.

Results published on Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine show that hydroxychloroquine was no better than placebo pills at preventing illness from the coronavirus. "We were disappointed. We would have liked for this to work," said the study leader, Dr. David Boulware, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota.

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"But our objective was to answer the question and to conduct a high-quality study," because the evidence on the drug so far has been inconclusive, he said.

Hydroxychloroquine and a similar drug, chloroquine, have been the subject of much debate since President Trump started promoting them in March. Hydroxychloroquine has long been used for malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, but no large studies have shown it or chloroquine to be safe or effective for much sicker patients with coronavirus, and some studies have suggested the drugs may do harm.

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Federal regulators have warned against hydroxychloroquine's use except in hospitals and formal studies because of the risk of side effects, especially heart rhythm problems. Boulware's study involved 821 people in the United States and Canada living with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or at high risk of getting it because of their job.

They were randomly assigned to get either the nutrient folate as a placebo or hydroxychloroquine for five days, starting within four days of their exposure.

The results "are more provocative than definitive," and the drug may yet have prevention benefits if tried sooner or in a different way, Dr Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote in a commentary in the journal. Others were glad to see a study that had a comparison group and good scientific methods after so many weaker reports on hydroxychloroquine.

The World Health Organization suspended use of hydroxychloroquine in a study it is leading, and French officials stopped the drug's use in hospitals. On Wednesday, the WHO said experts who reviewed safety information decided that its study could resume.

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