Could Chloroquine Treat Coronavirus? 5 Questions Answered About A Promising, Problematic And Unproven Use For An Antimalarial Drug

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Medical staff of the Intensive Care Unit of the Casalpalocco COVID-19 Clinic in the outskirts of Rome tend to patients, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

NEW YORK (THE CONVERSATION/AP/Katherine Seley-Radtke, University of Maryland, Baltimore County) An Arizona man died, and his wife was hospitalized, after taking a form of chloroquine, which President Trump has touted as an effective treatment for COVID-19. The couple decided to self-medicate with chloroquine phosphate, which they had on hand to kill parasites in their fish, after hearing the president describe the drug as a “game changer.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of NIH’s National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, quickly corrected the statement, explaining that Trump’s comments were based on anecdotes and not a controlled clinical trial.

I am a medicinal chemist who specializes in discovery and development of antiviral drugs, and I have been actively working on coronaviruses for seven years.

However, because I am a scientist and I deal in facts and evidence-based medicine, I am concerned about the sweeping statements the president has been making regarding the use of chloroquine or the closely related hydroxychloroquine, both antimalarial drugs, as cures for COVID-19. So let’s examine the facts.

What are chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine?

These are both FDA-approved antimalarial drugs that have been in use for many years. Chloroquine was originally developed in 1934 at the pharmaceutical company Bayer and used in World War II to prevent malaria.

Although the FDA has not approved its use for these conditions, both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

What triggered talk that this drug might work?

After the initial outbreak of MERS in 2012, scientists conducted random screens of thousands of approved drugs to identify one that might block MERS infection. Several drugs, including chloroquine, showed the ability to block coronaviruses from infecting cells in vitro. But these drugs were not extensively pursued because ultimately they did not show enough activity to be considered further.

When the new coronavirus appeared, many drugs that had shown some initial promise against the related coronaviruses MERS and SARS were at the top of the list as worthy of further evaluation as possible treatments.

So the science is real, and a number of labs around the world are now investigating these drugs and testing them in clinical trials in the U.S., Franceand China. But so far, there is no consensus about whether the drugs are safe and effective for treating COVID-19, as it is still very early in the testing process.

Why would antimalarial drugs work on a virus?

It is still unclear how the chloroquines (or any antimalarial drug) would work against COVID-19, which is a virus. Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites that are spread by mosquitoes, whereas COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Viral infections and parasitic infections are very different, and so scientists wouldn’t expect what works for one to work for the other. It has been suggested that the chloroquines can change the acidity at the surface of the cell, thereby preventing the virus from infecting it.

It’s also possible chloroquines help activate the immune response. One study that was just published tested hydroxychloroquine in combination with an antibacterial drug (azithromycin), which worked better to stop the spread of the infection than hydroxychloroquine alone. However it’s only one preliminary study that was done on a limited test group.

Do other drugs show promise?

To my knowledge, no other antimalarial drugs have shown any meaningful activity against treating coronaviruses. However, another potential drug has risen to the forefront. Remdesivir, developed by Gilead Pharmaceuticals, seems to be highly effective at preventing viruses – including coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS, and filoviruses such as Ebola – from replicating.

In late February the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases launched a clinical trial for Remdesivir. And this month Gilead launched two phase III trials of the drug in medical centers in Asia.

Should I start taking them to ward off coronavirus?

Absolutely not. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have not been appropriately evaluated in controlled studies, not to mention that they have numerous and, in some cases, very deadly side effects.

No one should take a drug that has not been proven to be safe and effective for a disease or condition for which it is not approved. There are just so many issues that can arise, from side effects to serious toxicity and death due to possible interactions with other medications and other underlying health conditions.

So until these or any drugs have been shown to be effective against SARS-CoV-2 in clinical trials and have been approved by the FDA, no one should be self-medicating.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. I saw an article in today’s NY Times that, according to tests performed in China, chloroquine is no more effective on treating Coronavirus than other treatment. So, I don’t think its a real solution.

    • The genara says a person dies not lie on a milse davide l’iglueh if dr zelebko says he did not send any of his 350 patients to the hospital believe him and by now it’s far more than 350 and anybody would know if somebody would die in kiryas Joel so far nobody is dying the AP is a democratic Network the trying to make Mass pandemonium in order to bring down Trump they don’t care how many people will die

      • Amazing. Thousands of people hospitalized, hundreds dying, and yet the media is trying to “make Mass (sic) pandemonium in order to bring down Trump.”
        The reality is that we are in the midst of a pandemic: this is not some media fantasy.

    • With all due respect, whom should we rely on more – an expert who has spent seven years researching this specific issue, or some stupid family doctor from Monroe who has no expertise, and who has already been caught with open lies in his videos, saying that he treated hundreds of patients with Corona at a time when the state said there were only a total of 14 cases in all of Orange county?

  2. so reading between the lines , there are some reasons to think it might work , and if you are sick u dont have much to lose under a docs care , even though these are not the normal channels & protocal. i guess we will know in a week

  3. The AP are deliberately misleading everyone by not disclosing and emphasizing enough that these two people who took chloroquine did not take the medication they took a chemical not designed for human consumption they took a chemical designed for aquariums they self-medicated themself an overdose themselves

  4. This guy doesn’t know what he’s taking about says our very own educated Archy. Archy says he saw how it helps. People who were sick got better just from sniffing the medication! He’s unsure if it’s the combination of herring, kugel and the meds that helped, but he’s sure it helped. He knows because he threw the kitchen sink at it.

  5. I find the author’s approach to this issue to be troubling. My comments:
    1. Yes, controlled , double-blind studies and clinical trials are the normal way of testing new drugs but the process is, as the author noted, lengthy, while the need is immediate.
    2. as the author also indicates, there is valid evidence to indicate that Chloroquine may be effective against COVD19. It seems that it’s worth a try on a voluntary basis because…
    3. Chloroquine is not a new drug. It’s been in use for over 50 years and its safety indications, dosage and effects are well known.
    No drug trial, even one that just involves re -purposing a well known drug is without risk. However, it seems to me that, in the current situation, the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of administering a newly re-purposed drug. As the President so astutely said, “It couldn’t hurt.”

    • Redleg,

      May I suggest that you listen to Dr Roberts from Lakewood who has experience with the 2 drugs being tested for this virus.

      He has a video on the web you can listen to.

      He says that the 2 drugs together can cause heart attacks and death.

      Please be careful taking drugs not under a Doctor’s supervision.

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