A study published Friday in a prestigious medical journal found that the anti-malarial drug President Donald Trump claims he is now taking-and has repeatedly urged others to take-is not effective for treating Covid-19 and could increase risk of heart problems and death in coronavirus patients.
"We were unable to confirm a benefit of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, when used alone or with a macrolide, on in-hospital outcomes for COVID-19", the study concluded. The biggest increase was in the group treated with hydroxychloroquine in combination with an antibiotic, where 8% of patients developed a heart arrhythmia compared with 0.3% of patients not given the drugs.
In addition to malaria, the two drugs are used to treat autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and have been shown to have antiviral properties. For those who received hydroxychloroquine plus an antibiotic, the death risk increased to 45% and heart problems to 411%.
Only one drug, Gilead Sciences Inc.'s remdesivir, has been shown to benefit coronavirus patients in a clinical trial.
Mehra's group analyzed data from almost 15,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients who were given hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, with or without the antibiotics azithromycin or clarithromycin, and a control group of about 81,000 hospitalized patients who didn't receive the drugs.
Researchers estimate that the death rate attributable to use of the drugs, with or without an antibiotic such as azithromycin, is roughly 13% versus 9% for patients not taking them.
Demand for the decades-old hydroxychloroquine has surged as Trump repeatedly promoted its use against the coronavirus, urging people to try it.
"Their results indicate an absence of benefit of 4-aminoquinoline-based treatments in this population and suggest that they could even be harmful", the doctors wrote.
"Previous small-scale studies have failed to identify robust evidence of a benefit and larger, randomized controlled trials are not yet completed ..."
While the study found an increased risk of in-hospital mortality, the relationship between death and ventricular tachycardia, or the lower chambers of the heart beating quickly, wasn't studied, the doctors said.
The findings: Those given the drug alone had a 34% increased risk of dying and a 137% increased risk of heart arrhythmias. And over 81,000 patients were in the control group.
Britain has ordered $42 million worth of hydroxychloroquine, despite numerous studies showing it is ineffective in treating Covid-19 and may even be more risky than doing nothing.
After accounting for other factors, the researchers calculated that this drug combination was associated with a more than fivefold higher risk of serious heart rhythm problems. And then we have common medications that are already used to treat other medical conditions and that have been reused for treatment with COVID-19.
Reference: "Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis" by Mandeep R Mehra, Sapan S Desai, Frank Ruschitzka and Amit N Pate, 22 May 2020, The Lancet.
President Donald Trump on Monday said that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine every day for a week and a half.