WHO stops anti-malarial drug trial for Covid-19 as a precautionary measure

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on May 26, 2020

File photo   -  Reuters

The World Health Organization on Monday said that it has temporarily suspended the clinical trials carried on hydroxychloroquine. The drug has been widely touted as a potential to cure Covid-19, the media reported.

The multilateral organisation took the decision as a precautionary measure after the Lancet publication released a study that consuming the drug would increase the chances of death.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference that the executive group of the so-called Solidarity Trial, in which hundreds of hospitals across several countries have enrolled patients to test several possible treatments for the novel coronavirus, had as a precaution suspended trials using that drug.

"The Executive Group has implemented a temporary pause of the hydroxychloroquine arm within the Solidarity Trial while the safety data is reviewed by the Data Safety Monitoring Board," Tedros said.

"The other arms of the trial are continuing," he stressed.

Hydroxychloroquine is generally used to treat arthritis. However, recently world leaders including President Donald Trump vouched for the drug’s potential to cure the Covid-19. This has prompted governments to bulk buy the medicine.

Brazil's health minister also recommended last week using hydroxychloroquine, as well as the anti-malarial chloroquine, to treat even mild Covid-19 cases.

The Lancet study found that both drugs can produce potentially serious side effects, particularly heart arrhythmia.

Neither drug helped those patients who were hospitalised with Covid-19, according to a Lancet study, which looked at the records of 96,000 patients across hundreds of hospitals.

Tedros emphasized that the two drugs "are accepted as generally safe for use in patients with autoimmune diseases or malaria."

WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Monday's briefing that the WHO-backed Solidarity Trial had been looking only at the effects of hydroxychloroquine and not chloroquine.

The decision on suspending enrolment for trials using hydroxychloroquine was "a temporary measure", she said.

"We're just acting by precaution," WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan agreed.

As many nations begin to gradually lift restrictions, the WHO focused on the need to maintain physical distancing measures and to put efforts in detecting more cases.

"All countries need to remain on high alert," WHO expert Maria Van Kerkhove said, stressing that "even countries that have seen a decline in cases must remain ready."

She warned that studies using antibody tests to determine how many people have been infected and might have some level of immunity "indicate that a large proportion of the population remains susceptible."

"The virus will take the opportunity to amplify if it can," she said.

Ryan agreed, urging countries to "continue to put in place ... a comprehensive strategy to ensure that we continue on a downward trajectory and that we don't have an immediate second peak."

He warned against the idea that the pandemic might move in natural seasonal waves, stressing that the reason transmission is going down in a number of countries was the drastic measures put in place.

"My concern right now is that people might be assuming that the current rapid infections represent a natural seasonality," he said.

"Making an assumption that it is on a downward trajectory, and the next danger point is sometime in October or November, I think that would be a dangerous assumption."

"If we take the pressure off the virus then the virus can bounce back," he said.

Published on May 26, 2020

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