Why Are Scientists Still Studying Hydroxychloroquine?

So far, data on the drug hasn’t looked good. So why are so many clinical trials still ongoing?

Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog
4 min readJun 12, 2020

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Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Hydroxychloroquine has received a lot of attention as a potential therapy for Covid-19, including from the president. And yet study after study has produced lackluster results. Recently, three large studies, two in people exposed to the virus and one in people severely ill with the disease, showed no treatment or protective benefit from the drug.

This raises questions: Why are scientists still studying this drug? Wouldn’t it be better if the resources spent on these trials were shifted to other therapies that might actually work? At what point does the science community declare this particular pursuit a failure?

“I don’t understand the rationale for any more trials with the exception to finish the ones that [study it] as preventive since that is the one area that isn’t fully settled,” says Eric Topol, MD, the chair of Innovative Medicine at Scripps Research. “It’s very likely to be negative, but since they are ongoing [they can continue]. The rest should be stopped.”

While the argument to not launch new trials of hydroxychloroquine makes sense, stopping studies already in progress is more complicated. But experts say ongoing or new hydroxychloroquine clinical trials deserve some deeper inquiry.

There are researchers who acknowledge that since the beginning of the pandemic, the enthusiasm to pursue hydroxychloroquine was maybe a bit premature. “There was a lot of advocacy and use of this drug early on, which was probably, looking back, a little misplaced and not highly scientific,” says Dr. Robin Patel, the president of the American Society for Microbiology. But now that the proper clinical trials are in place, Patel says the studies are telling the science community what they are supposed to.

The purpose of clinical trials is to answer whether a drug or other medical intervention is safe and effective. Patel says the trials so far suggest that there are some safety issues with hydroxychloroquine, and a recent prophylaxis study showed that it’s not very effective at preventing infection. “It’s always a balance between safety and efficacy when we…

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Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that