Antimalarial Drugs for Coronavirus: What’s the Truth?

malaria drugs, hydroxychloroquine, Trump, coronavirus

Doctors around the world are using antimalarial drugs to treat COVID-19. The two drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, are being used in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin (Z-pack) to slow down symptoms and respiratory issues for those hospitalized with coronavirus.

While not officially approved by the FDA, the FDA has issued emergency use authorization for the two drugs. These drugs are typically only provided in medical situations where the side effects can be easily monitored.

Side effects of the anti-malaria drugs can include cardiac arrest for those with heart problems or lethal reactions for those taking antidepressants. Antimalarial drugs are approved  to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Around the world, however, hydroxychloroquine has been prescribed less and less for malaria due to the fact that it is losing its efficacy as the virus becomes more resistant to the drug.  

New studies 

New studies have shown that the anti-malarial drugs in fact make little difference with COVID-19, and can also lead to a higher death rate, abnormal heart rates that can lead to cardiac arrest, as well as risks for eye disease, renal, and liver damage. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the use of hydroxychloroquine did not decrease the need for ventilators nor the risk of death. Another study published in The Lancet found that patients treated with hydroxychloroquine had a higher death risk than those who were not treated with the drug. 

President Trump taking the drug

The matter is further confused by the fact that President Trump has announced he is taking the drug. In a press conference in April, President Trump stated, “What do you have to lose? Take it.”

Further complicating matters, the popularity of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin has led to shortages of both of these drugs, both of which are needed for other approved illnesses and infections. Hydroxychloroquine has not been approved by the FDA for COVID-19. Dr. Joshua Septimus of Houston Methodist Hospital said, “I know everybody is looking for a magic bullet, but science just doesn’t work that way.”  

Previous trials

NPR reported that there are two new trials underway to test how well the drugs actually work in treating COVID-19. Previously, there has been a small trial in France, which showed that the drugs worked well, though the size and the quality of the testing was questionable. However, there was another trial in China, which showed that the drugs made no difference.

The two new U.S. trials run by David Boulware of the University of Minnesota will test whether the drugs work for those exposed to the disease, and for those who are already showing COVID-19 symptoms. The trial is double blind — neither the patients participating nor the doctors providing it know who is getting the active drug and who is getting the placebo. Patients can enroll online

The takeaways

More research is needed to determine whether these anti-malarial drugs are actually “miracle drugs” for coronavirus, though there is anecdotal evidence that they have slowed the virus in critically ill patients. The decision whether to use the drugs must be made wisely for each patient based on potential side effects and the patient’s overall health. 

Remember that hydroxychloroquine should only be taken with a doctor’s prescription for COVID-19. 

Across the U.S., orders for chloroquine were up 3000 percent, and orders for hydroxychloroquine were up 260 percent for the month of March.

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