Paris — France has banned the use of the controversial anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat people with COVID-19, the diseased caused by the new coronavirus. The move follows the publication of initial findings from a large-scale study that found the drug offered no benefit to patients, and could in fact be harmful.
The Lancet medical journal reported on May 22 that the observational study on nearly 100,000 patients from multiple countries found a higher mortality rate and an increased frequency of irregular heartbeats in patients who were given hydroxychloroquine.
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France’s health minister responded to the findings the next day by asking the French High Council for Public Health (HCSP) to review the situation, and it recommended halting the use of the drug.
The findings also prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to announce Monday the temporary suspension of the malaria drug from a global trial looking at various potential COVID-19 treatments, pending a safety review.
At least four people in France have died from complications linked to the side effects of hydroxychloroquine. An early study released in early April in the southern city of Nice found that 43 cases of heart trouble were linked to use of the drug.
Following encouraging results from early, small-scale studies on the use of hydroxychloroquine by Prof. Didier Raoult in Marseille, the French government decided at the end of March to allow the use of the drug in 16 clinical trials, and in the treatment of seriously ill, hospitalized patients. Those trials will now be halted.
President Donald Trump has been a staunch defender of the drug and drew criticism from medical experts when he announced recently that he was taking it daily in a bid to prevent contracting COVID-19. Mr. Trump said on Monday that he’d stopped taking the medication.
Italy and Belgium, which have also dealt with serious coronavirus outbreaks and had authorized use of hydroxychloroquine in severely ill patients under close hospital supervision, have both told doctors to suspended use of the drug, apart from in clinical trials, in the wake of the Lancet report.
Hydroxychloroquine is derived from the anti-malaria drug chloroquine and is used to prevent and treat malaria in areas where that disease remains sensitive to chloroquine. It is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
The coronavirus pandemic has now killed more than 350,00 people globally, as researchers around the world continue to work aggressively to find treatments and vaccines to halt the spread of the deadly virus.