The Trump administration keeps pushing hydroxychloroquine—more studies show it’s unhelpful for COVID-19 (updated)

hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients
Photo via Jovan Gec/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0)

Two more studies have come out against the use of hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients, but Donald Trump supporters continue to promote the drug. 

Hydroxychloroquine is an immunosuppressive drug used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. In March, scientists were hopeful that it could be used to treat COVID-19 patients, but several studies have since been published proving otherwise. 

Published on July 23, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that treating 667 COVID-19 patients across 55 hospitals in Brazil with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin did not improve their symptoms over 15 days. In fact, the study found that patients given the drugs experienced an elevation of liver-enzyme levels and unusual heart rhythms. 

The day before the NEJM study was published, Nature published its own study that found that hydroxychloroquine “does not inhibit the virus in human lung cells,” Yahoo reported. 

Scientists in Germany tested the drug on various cell types to see why it isn’t very effective. The scientists found that some cells need to have an enzyme called cathepsin L for a virus to infect it successfully. Hydroxychloroquine can protect those cells because it decreases the acidic environment and disables the enzyme. Lung cells require an enzyme called TMPRSS2 instead, which doesn’t depend on an acidic environment to be effective. 

Even as these two studies further prove why scientists should probably divert their focus to other COVID-19 treatment alternatives, some politicians and health experts continue to advocate for hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients. 

Dr. Harvey Risch, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, has said in multiple outlets that the drug has been politicized and that he is a proponent. In a July 23 op-ed in Newsweek, he wrote that hydroxychloroquine is useful when treating patients in the early stages of COVID-19 and that it only causes heart issues after prolonged use. The most recent study in NEJM that found unusual heart rhythms in COVID-19 patients after just 15 days of taking the drug appears to disprove that part of his thesis. 

President Trump is also a major advocate for hydroxychloroquine. He called it a “game-changer” for treating patients and said he took it himself to prevent infection. Others in his administration, like trade adviser Peter Navarro, have also continued to promote it. But the FDA revoked the emergency status of the drug on June 15. 

On July 1, the FDA issued its own study that shows how hydroxychloroquine leads to “reports of serious heart rhythm problems and other safety issues, including blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries, and liver problems failure” in COVID-19 patients. 

In May, the World Health Organization halted its hydroxychloroquine trials after an analysis of 96,000 patients showed they were more likely to die if they were given the drug.

On July 29, the state of Ohio said pharmacists can’t prescribe hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients.

Sources: New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Yahoo, Newsweek, CNN, FDA

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