What’s the Deal With Chloroquine?

Keep a clear head about experimental treatments for Covid-19

Photo: Gerard Julien/Getty Images

The race is on to find a drug that can treat the coronavirus. So far, the potential candidates include the malaria therapies chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, the experimental antiviral known as remdesivir, a duo of HIV drugs, and dozens of others identified recently.

It’s encouraging news, but take it with a grain of salt. Even though the early results are promising, each of these drugs needs rigorous testing using clinical trials. Yes, that can take months or even years, but the last thing the world needs is to spend precious resources making a drug that’s unsafe or doesn’t work.

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump proclaimed the “very, very encouraging early results” of chloroquine treatment — a move that FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci quickly and emphatically corrected by reiterating the need for thorough clinical testing.

Research about the effectiveness of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine is floating around online. Trump referred to one paper, published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, in a Saturday tweet. But the study only involved 36 people, it was not randomized, and its own authors described its sample size as “small.” In a press conference, Fauci characterized the existing evidence of hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness as “anecdotal.”

Taking a treatment that has not been fully tested yet is also potentially dangerous. According to a statement from the Banner Health hospital system on Monday, “a man has died and his wife is under critical care after the couple, both in their 60s, ingested chloroquine phosphate.”

Rigorous trials are about to start. On Friday, the World Health Organization announced a global trial called SOLIDARITY to test four of the most promising treatments for the coronavirus, which include chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, the aforementioned duo of HIV drugs, and a variation on the latter. For a closer look at SOLIDARITY, check out the coverage at Science magazine.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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