For weeks, hydroxychloroquine has been making headlines as a hotly contested therapy for treating patients with COVID-19. President Donald Trump publicly praised the antimalarial drug on numerous occasions, and on Monday he claimed he’d been taking it himself for the last week and a half. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned back in April that the medication could cause heart problems, and most experts agree that taking it as protection against COVID-19 is a bad idea.
Now, there’s further evidence to the perils of using hydroxychloroquine and the related drug chloroquine. In the largest analysis to date, scientists found that in addition to showing no benefit to patients hospitalized for COVID-19, people who take the medications are at higher risk of suffering heart problems while hospitalized—and may even be more likely to die. The drugs seem particularly dangerous when combined with antibiotics.
The study, published Friday in The Lancet, isn’t conclusive, and it won’t be the final word on hydroxychloroquine. Instead of a randomized control study, where groups of patients are either given a medication or put on a placebo, this paper merely analyzed the health outcomes of COVID-19 patients who’d already been hospitalized and treated. While a randomized control trial (like the one currently being run in Thailand and Great Britain) can ensure that a large variety of patients are receiving the drug in question, a study that looks back on existing data may be skewed by the fact that doctors were more likely to prescribe it to severely ill patients. This leaves out valuable information on how people with mild or moderate symptoms fare on the therapy; but with some 96,000 patients at 671 different hospitals across six continents included, the new results are still compelling.
“”Our data has very convincingly shown that in a real-world population this drug combination, whichever way you slice it or dice it, does not show any evidence of benefit, and in fact, is immutably showing a signal of grave harm,” Mandeep Mehra, medical director of Brigham and Women’s Heart & Vascular Center and lead author of the review, told CNN.
“It’s a very striking finding and it’s convincing to me,” Steven Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told STAT. “Based upon these findings and others, no one should take hydroxychloroquine with or without an antibiotic unless they are in a randomized controlled trial. It should not be used in the general population to prevent or to treat COVID-19 infection.”
Retail sales of hydroxychloroquine in March—after Trump began bringing up the drug at press conferences—were twice as high as they’d been at the same time a year before. While figures for April and May aren’t available yet, the drug has been hard to come by for those taking it for Lupus and other autoimmune diseases, for which it has FDA approval.