Coronavirus update: WHO pauses hydroxychloroquine trial; warns of COVID-19 'second peak'
The WHO move comes after a recent key medical study suggested the anti malaria drug could increase the risk of patients dying from COVID-19. The UN agency has also warned of a 'second peak' in areas where the novel coronavirus is declining.
Testing of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 patients due to safety concerns has been suspended, the World Health Organization has announced. It comes after a recent key medical study suggested the drug could increase the risk of patients dying from the novel coronavirus.
Hydroxycholoroquine has been touted by US President Donald Trump as a possible treatment for the highly-contagious virus. He has said he is taking the drug to help prevent infection.
The Republican leader has been promoting hydroxychloroquine or HCQ as a “game changer” in combating COVID-19, against medical advice and despite warnings from public health officials that it could cause heart problems.
"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," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told an online briefing.
He said the other arms of the trial -- a major international initiative to hold clinical tests of potential treatments for the virus -- were continuing.
The WHO has previously recommended against using hydroxychloroquine to treat or prevent coronavirus infections, except as part of clinical trials. Dr Mike Ryan, head of the WHO emergencies programme, said the decision to suspend trials of hydroxychloroquine had been taken out of "an abundance of caution".
Last week, a study in medical journal The Lancet said there were no benefits to treating coronavirus patients with hydroxychloroquine, and that taking it might even increase the number of deaths among those in hospital with the disease.
The study results showed that the drug use in COVID-19 patients raised the risk of death by up to 45 per cent.
Hydroxychloroquine is safe for malaria, and conditions like lupus or arthritis, but no clinical trials have recommended its use for treating Covid-19. The Lancet study involved 96,000 coronavirus patients, nearly 15,000 of whom were given hydroxychloroquine - or a related form chloroquine - either alone or with an antibiotic.
The study found that the patients were more likely to die in hospital and develop heart rhythm complications than other COVID-19 patients in a comparison group.
The death rates of the treated groups were: hydroxychloroquine 18%; chloroquine 16.4%; control group 9%. Those treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine in combination with antibiotics had an even higher death rate.
The researchers warned that hydroxychloroquine should not be used outside of clinical trials.
WHO WARNS OF CORONAVIRUS ‘SECOND PEAK’
The UN agency also said on Monday that countries where coronavirus infections are declining could still face an "immediate second peak" if they let up too soon on measures to halt the outbreak.
The world is still in the middle of the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak, Dr Ryan said, noting that while cases are declining in many countries they are still increasing in Central and South America, South Asia and Africa.
Ryan said epidemics often come in waves, which means that outbreaks could come back later this year in places where the first wave has subsided. There was also a chance that infection rates could rise again more quickly if measures to halt the first wave were lifted too soon.
"When we speak about a second wave classically what we often mean is there will be a first wave of the disease by itself, and then it recurs months later. And that may be a reality for many countries in a number of months' time," Ryan said.
"But we need also to be cognizant of the fact that the disease can jump up at any time. We cannot make assumptions that just because the disease is on the way down now it is going to keep going down and we are get a number of months to get ready for a second wave. We may get a second peak in this wave."
He said countries in Europe and North America should "continue to put in place the public health and social measures, the surveillance measures, the testing measures and a comprehensive strategy to ensure that we continue on a downwards trajectory and we don't have an immediate second peak."
Many European countries and US states have taken steps in recent weeks to lift lockdown measures that curbed the spread of the disease but caused severe harm to economies.