There has been an explosion of information, comments and opinions on COVID-19 on the internet and social media. We believe that on serious topics in general, and on public health matters in particular, it is essential to rely on facts and seek credible, expert information. Our mission at Healthy Matters remains to bring you the best information, so you can make the best choices for you and your family.
In the last weeks, two drugs have popped up on everyone’s radar: chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. Chloroquine is an oral prescription drug that’s been around for decades, so why is everyone suddenly talking about it? Many believe that it could be the right treatment for COVID-19. We investigate.
Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine: What are they?
Chloroquine was first discovered in 1934 but wasn’t introduced into clinical practice until 1949 because it was considered too toxic. Originally introduced to treat malaria, it is now also prescribed by doctors to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis amongst others.
To make it simple, the drug changes the pH of the cell membrane in which the virus resides, stopping it from releasing its genetic material and replicating itself.
Hydroxychloroquine is closely related to chloroquine and shares a similar structure. It is effective in treating lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. However it shows lower toxicity than chloroquine which is why some believe it might even be more promising.
Preliminary research conducted in China in February on 100 patients infected with COVID-19 suggested that chloroquine provides clinical and virologic advantages, compared with a non-treatment group. When Chinese scientists were faced with a shortage of chloroquine, they began testing with hydroxychloroquine and saw some promising results. Chloroquine is currently an investigational agent under clinical trials for the treatment of COVID-19.
Several countries in Europe have since began their own clinical trials. Indonesia announced it has secured 3 million chloroquine tablets to be available in hospitals under prescription, and that it will also produce chloroquine in hopes it can help the current crisis.
Concerns were raised recently when an Arizona resident died while attempting to self medicate with the drug, after Donald Trump widely praised its effectiveness. It is believed that more than one person have overdosed. Meanwhile, some hospitals in the US have began administering chloroquine to patients.
Many advise it might be premature as we are still awaiting results from ongoing trials, and it has not been approved yet by the FDA.
Can they cure COVID-19?
One country where there has been a very intense public debate is France. On March 16, Professor Didier Raoult, the head of a university hospital institute in Marseille, declared his teams had treated 25 patients with hydroxychloroquine. He said that after six days, only 1 in 4 still had the virus while 90 percent of the patients who had not taken the drug were still infected. Professour Raoult maintains that chloroquine is a cheap and simple treatment options which should be used to treat all or most patients, and could save thousands of lives. Other scientists believe that it should only be used in rarer, serious cases of COVID-19.
In the latest twist, the French government decided on March 26 to allow doctors to prescribe hydroxychloroquine (under the commercial name Plaquenil) to patients infected by COVID-19.
It is important to note that if chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are generally well tolerated (when prescribed by doctors for known conditions), they can also cause an array of side effects. Most commonly: stomach pain, vomiting, headaches and in rarer cases: irregular heartbeat, muscle damage and retinal toxicity.
Ultimately, further research needs to be carried out before it can be administered widely but it remains an option for treating COVID-19. We will be keeping a close eye on any developments.