Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19: Scientists say it's time to stop promoting the drug

“There is no reason to keep talking about hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19."
Image: US-HEALTH-VIRUS-MEDICINE
A pharmacy tech pours out pills of Hydroxychloroquine at Rock Canyon Pharmacy in Provo, Utah, on May 20, 2020. - US President Donald Trump announced May 18 he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for almost two weeks as a preventative measure against COVID-19.George Frey / AFP - Getty Images

With more 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 and 4 million confirmed cases in the United States, President Donald Trump continues to tout an unproven treatment for the coronavirus. While some treatments have been shown to improve survival or lessen the severity of the disease, leading infectious disease experts, doctors and virologists say it’s time to stop promoting one that hasn't: hydroxychloroquine.

“There is no reason to keep talking about hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease physician at Emory University School of Medicine, told NBC News. “It does not work for treatment or for prevention. I have no idea why there is still talk about it, but it’s wrong.”

Numerous clinical trials have failed to show that hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that has been approved to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, helps hospitalized patients. Other studies found the drug wasn’t helpful for patients with mild disease. After warning of possible dangerous side effects from misuse, the Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency use authorization for the drug, saying it’s unlikely to be effective against the virus.

"The scientific data, the cumulative data on trials, namely clinical trials that were randomized and controlled in the proper way, all of those trials showed consistently that hydroxychloroquine is not effective," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious diseases doctor, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday.

Yet Trump, who says he took the drug in May, promoted the medication again this week during a briefing. “Many doctors think it is extremely successful, the hydroxychloroquine coupled with the zinc and perhaps the azithromycin.”

Other politicians stepped into the hydroxychloroquine fray this week. The Ohio Board of Pharmacy withdrew a ban on dispensing the drug for treatment or prevention of COVID-19 at the request of Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican. And Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, told Fox News late Wednesday that he will be taking hydroxychloroquine along with azithromycin and zinc for his infection, after a conversation with his doctor. Gohmert has said he has no symptoms.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said he believes the White House brings up hydroxychloroquine frequently because it isn't willing to do the hard work needed to contain the outbreak. “So, as a substitute they veer towards magical solutions like hydroxychloroquine,” Hotez told NBC News in an email. “It's a strategy borne out of sloth and fear.”

There is no cure for COVID-19 and currently with 57,000 hospitalized patients in the U.S, there have been concerns about shortages of proven treatments like remdesivir. At the same time, there is a surplus of hydroxychloroquine for the coronavirus. The White House director of trade and manufacturing policy, Peter Navarro, told CNN this week that the U.S. emergency stockpile is "sitting on millions of doses" of the drug.

With little to no evidence supporting the use of hydroxychloroquine, the FDA commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said Thursday that it’s up to a patient’s doctor to decide.

When asked whether patients should take hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, Hahn acknowledged the potential harms. “We had data that when this drug was combined with others, there was some risk associated with that,” Hahn told NBC's "TODAY" show. “But the question you’re asking me is a decision between a doctor and a patient.”

The interest in hydroxychloroquine began in March after a French scientist published a study showing that the drug in combination with azithromycin was an effective treatment for COVID-19. The study has since been widely debated, and the scientific society that published the study later admitted that the article did not meet its standards.

In early June, a study published by The Lancet showed hydroxychloroquine not only had no benefit but a potential for harm, but the study was retracted after concerns about the data.

A slew of other research, however, has repeatedly concluded that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment for the coronavirus, including results from three large randomized controlled trials.

On June 5, the U.K. RECOVERY trial announced that the first randomized controlled trial on hydroxychloroquine had shown it to be ineffective for hospitalized patients. Since then, both a National Institutes of Health study and a trial backed by the World Health Organization have been suspended because patients on the drug were not faring better than those without it.

Dr. Esther Choo, an emergency medicine physician at Oregon Health Sciences, believes the many studies can make it hard to sort through the meaningful data, adding to public confusion.

“The early observational studies keep getting recycled," Choo told NBC News in an email. "It's hard for the general public to understand that these kinds of studies are not as helpful in determining drug effect as controlled trials of the drug.”

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, calls the politicization of hydroxychloroquine “extremely dangerous for public health.”

“It diverts attention and resources from other drugs in development that might be more effective and at worst could result in people using ineffective treatments rather than seeking care for COVID-19,” she wrote in an email.

The researchers agree the U.S. needs to focus on finding a treatment that works.

“Let's put the last nail in the hydroxychloroquine coffin and move on,” del Rio said.

CORRECTION (July 30, 2020, 8:03 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a virologist at Columbia University. She is Angela Rasmussen, not Rassmussen.