Chloroquine hype is derailing the search for coronavirus treatments
With politicians touting the potential benefits of malaria drugs to fight COVID-19, some people are turning away from clinical trials of other therapies.
People with COVID-19 who arrive at the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition in Mexico City to search for treatment can choose from a menu of clinical trials, carefully presented by a worker trained to offer an unbiased portrait of the potential risks and benefits.
But neurologist Sergio Iván Valdés-Ferrer already knows which trial most will choose — and it’s not his. Instead, many people opt for one involving hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that has been touted by US President Donald Trump and other influential figures as an effective coronavirus treatment. High demand for the drug in Mexico has quickly depleted the country’s supply. Its use is now limited to hospitals, and patients are eager to ensure that they receive it.
“There’s a tremendous bias,” says Valdés-Ferrer, who is studying the effects of a dementia drug on COVID-19. “Studies of any other drug that are enrolling all ages and degrees of severity are in big trouble.”
Hydroxychloroquine and its close chemical cousin chloroquine have attracted disproportionate attention in the coronavirus pandemic, spurred by preliminary studies and endorsement from political leaders such as Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. So far, there is very little data backing the idea that hydroxychloroquine works against coronavirus infection, yet the fervour surrounding it has created drug shortages and affected enrolment in clinical trials for other potential treatments.
“When you have desperate people and, frankly, desperate doctors, you want to believe that you have something that works,” says Daniel Kaul, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. “But at the end of the day that doesn’t help anybody if it isn’t effective, and if it precludes people from participating in other studies.”