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Is malaria drug saving lives – including the PM’s?

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MAINSTREAM journalists have been displaying a strange reluctance to ask serious questions about how effective the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is as a potential treatment for Covid-19.

You may remember that a recent study by a French physician and microbiologist, Professor Didier Raoult, suggested that the treatment could be effective in the struggle against the pandemic when used in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin. (The study was cited by, among others, US President Donald Trump). See the most recent iteration of Dr Raoult’s work here.

It should be noted that a number of criticisms have been made of Professor Raoult’s work, for example here, while some experts believe the treatment can pose significant harm to some patients.

However, in the wake of the welcome recovery of the Prime Minister from the virus, a potent question is reverberating across Twitter and other digital media: Was Boris Johnson the recipient of this treatment during his time in St Thomas’ Hospital London? A separate question is: If used, did it aid in the PM’s recovery?

It would also be interesting to know whether the Prince of Wales was treated with this drug before before he recovered from Covid-19.

Two tantalising articles have been published by the Mail in recent days.

It reported on April 7 that St Thomas’ was involved with major trials of experimental drugs, including hydroxychloroquine.

On April 12 it said that two hospitals – Barts and the Royal Devon and Exeter – are using hydroxychloroquine ‘to keep critically ill coronavirus patients alive’.

It should be noted that there is no definitive evidence yet on how effective these drugs are at treating coronavirus, and on their safety profile, despite copious anecdotal evidence and a number of small-scale studies in various countries which give conflicting results.

However, a number of recent events may offer more insight:

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration gave the drug emergency approval, meaning it can be prescribed by doctors to treat Covid-19 while there is no approved alternative available.

On April 6, New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed at a press conference that the drug was being paired with the antibiotic Zithromax (azithromycin) at the discretion of hospitals. He said: ‘Anecdotally, you’ll get suggestions that it has been effective. But we don’t have any official data yet from a hospital or a quote-unquote study, which will take weeks if not months. There has been anecdotal evidence that it is promising; that’s why we’re going ahead.’ 

India is reportedly recommending all its healthcare workers take the drug as a prophylactic. 

Malaysia has reportedly been using the treatment since the very beginning of the pandemic.

Countries including China, South Korea, and Belgium have added the drug to Covid-19 treatment guidelines.

It was reported on April 6 that ‘doctors and pharmacists from more than half a dozen large healthcare systems in New York, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Washington and California told Reuters they are routinely using hydroxychloroquine on patients hospitalised with Covid-19′. 

On April 9, French President Emmanuel Macron met Professor Raoult in Marseilles. Raoult is said to have handed Macron a study on 1,061 patients who were treated with the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin which showed more than 90 per cent effectiveness. Macron himself has not made any definitive pronouncement of his view of the effectiveness of the treatment.

Also on April 9, enrolment began at Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, for the first large-scale study in the United States of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in preventing Covid-19 in healthcare workers and first responders. 

On April 13, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem announced that her state will pioneer statewide clinical trials of the treatment, becoming the first state to do so. 

The wife of Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, said the anti-malaria treatment may or may nothave helped her beat the virus but it had certainly given her ‘extreme side-effects’. 

The Mail also reported recently that, according to an international poll of 6,000 doctors, hydroxychloroquine usage amongst Covid-19 treaters was 72 per cent in Spain, 49 per cent in Italy, 41 per cent in Brazil, 39 per cent in Mexico, 28 per cent in France, 23 per cent in the U.S., 17 per cent in Germany, 16 per cent in Canada, 13 per cent in the UK and 7 per cent in Japan. It should be noted that Full Fact has pointed out limitations in this survey.

As far as positive anecdotal reports go there have been a few:

Both Italy and France have now reportedly said doctors can now prescribe hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus. On March 29 it was also reported that doctors in Italy began widely prescribing hydroxychloroquine in certain combinations in Rome and the wider region of Lazio. The report cited Corriere della Sera as quoting Dr Pier Luigi Bartoletti of the Italian Federation of General Practitioners, who said that ‘every single person with Covid-19 that has early signs, like a cough or a fever for example, is now being treated with the anti-malaria drug’. Dr Bartoletti was further quoted as adding that the treatment ‘is already giving good results’. 

Actor Daniel Dae Kim, of Lost, has said that hydroxychloroquine was responsible for him recovering from coronavirus.

American legal commentator David Lat, who was put on a ventilator, said that his mother, a pathologist, was ‘firmly convinced that [hydroxychloroquine] saved my life’ (though he notes that he is agnostic about the drug’s efficacy). 

It was reported on April 7 that a Michigan state lawmaker (a Democrat) who had been infected with Covid-19 credited hydroxychloroquine with saving her life, saying she felt better within a few hours of taking it. Representative Karen Whitsett of Detroit said: ‘If President Trump had not talked about this, it wouldn’t have been something that would be accessible for anyone to be able to get right now.’  

However, it should also be noted that a number of experts, including the Trump administration’s Dr Anthony Fauci, have repeatedly expressed scepticism about the efficacy of this treatment, as have some other physicians. For example, on April 12 American Dr Sanjum Sethi tweeted: ‘Every single ICU patient (barring QTc issues) got hydroxychloroquine and it doesn’t seem to have helped. Maybe it helps for prophylaxis or in mild disease, but doesn’t appear to do anything once in ICU. It is NOT a panacea and should not be given indiscriminately.’

While acknowledging that we and public officials are currently very much in the fog of war when it comes to the pandemic, and paying tribute to the healthcare workers who are risking their lives in the fight against the virus, it needs to be stated that the public deserves better information from the media and from our health officials about whether there is any hope on the horizon with regard to this or any other treatment. If there is, or if there is not, they need to tell us as soon as they can. And mainstream journalists (particularly those at important press conferences) should do more to find out the answers.

Politics should not get in the way of affording the public clear and unbiased information about the efficacy or otherwise of potential treatments.

The purpose of this piece is to highlight specific aspects of a topic of major concern for readers in the hope that it might be more effectively addressed, in the interest of public information, by the UK authorities and by the media. It does not seek to offer expert opinion about medical treatment, nor is the author qualified to do so. Medical advice, and advice about treatment, should be sought only from a qualified professional.

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Joseph Berry
Joseph Berry is a former journalist.

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