For several weeks, Donald Trump has been pushing malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a possible way of treating coronavirus.
However, a study in U.S. veterans hospitals found that not only was there no benefit, but there were more deaths among those given the drug compared to those who received standard care.
Researchers analysed medical records of 368 male veterans hospitalised with confirmed coronavirus infection at Veterans Health Administration medical centres who died or were discharged by April 11.
About 28% who were given hydroxychloroquine plus usual care died, versus 11% of those getting routine care alone. About 22% of those getting the drug plus azithromycin died too, but the difference between that group and usual care was not considered large enough to rule out other factors that could have affected survival.
Hydroxychloroquine made no difference in the need for a breathing machine, either.
Researchers did not track side effects, but noted a hint that hydroxychloroquine might have damaged other organs. The drug has long been known to have potentially serious side effects, including altering the heartbeat in a way that could lead to sudden death.
The nationwide study was not a rigorous experiment. But, with 368 patients, it is the largest look so far of hydroxychloroquine with or without the antibiotic azithromycin for coronavirus, which has killed more than 171,000 people as of Tuesday.
The study was posted on an online site for researchers and has not been reviewed by other scientists. Grants from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia paid for the work.
Earlier this month, scientists in Brazil stopped part of a study testing chloroquine, an older drug similar to hydroxychloroquine, after heart rhythm problems developed in one-quarter of people given the higher of two doses being tested.
On Tuesday, NIH issued new treatment guidelines from a panel of experts, saying there was not enough evidence to recommend for or against chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19. But it also advised against using hydroxychloroquine with azithromycin because of the potential side effects.
At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Dr Naisa Safdar said doctors were ‘rather underwhelmed’ at what they saw among the patients who have tried it.
Patients asked about it soon after Trump started promoting its use.
Dr Safdar said more work was needed adding: ‘But now I think that people have realised we don’t know if it works or not.’
The NIH and others have more rigorous tests underway.
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