Chloroquine ‘can work’, some insist, as debate rages on using the anti-malarial against coronavirus

A coronavirus patient being treated at a hospital in Vannes, France on March 20, 2020.
A coronavirus patient being treated at a hospital in Vannes, France on March 20, 2020. REUTERS - STEPHANE MAHE

French health authorities on Monday recommended against using the anti-malaria drug chloroquine to treat COVID-19 cases, except under very restricted circumstances. But not everyone agrees with the decision.


French public biomedical research agency, Inserm, on Sunday announced it would coordinate a European trial, named Discovery, to evaluate four experimental treatments to fight the coronavirus.

The trial would include 3,200 patients from at least seven countries, including 800 from France, the research agency announced. Discovery would also notably include testing for chloroquine, an anti-malaria treatment that yielded promising results in a study conducted on a small number of patients by Didier Raoult, director of IHU Méditerranée Infection in the southern French city of Marseille.

>> Read more: Can an old anti-malaria drug help fight coronavirus?

But chloroquine is also a subject of intense debate within the medical community. In addition to chloroquine, the Discovery trial is set to evaluate remesivir, and a combination of the HIV drugs, lopinavir and ritonavir, with interferon-beta, an immune system messenger that can help cripple viruses.

‘We know this product can work’

Christian Perronne, head of the infectious diseases department at the Raymond-Poincaré Hospital near Paris, says he is already using these treatments. "But the problem is, the stocks are very limited. There aren't many drugs available, which is a pity. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are the most active," he told FRANCE 24.

"Professor Raoult's team has done a very preliminary study, but on 24 patients, it's still quite convincing. It shows the reduction of the virus in the patients' secretions. We hope that this will slow down the spread," he explained, referring to the research in Marseille.

Raoult explained that his team had conducted a clinical trial during which he had treated people infected with COVID-19 with chloroquine. After six days, only 25 percent of the patients who had taken the drug still had the virus in their bodies, according to the physician-microbiologist. In contrast, 90 per cent of those who had not taken chloroquine continued to have the coronavirus.

For Perronne, that should make it possible to use this treatment today. "I fully agree with the authorities and my colleagues that further studies are needed to find out more about this. What I am asking is that, as of today, the factories that manufacture hydroxychloroquine are working day and night to provide millions of treatments for patients who, today, are isolated in their hospitals and do not have antiviral treatments. We know this product can work and will probably prevent many people from going into intensive care," he explained

‘We have to go to war’

Responding to concerns about potential side effects, Perronne noted that, "There are millions of people who have taken it a few times over the years for chronic diseases. I don't see the hesitation for a second. What's more, it doesn't cost much and it's easy to make".

Most important though, Perronne notes that the treatment will be given to “people who are hospitalised and under surveillance. People have been making unfounded noise about all this. I admit that for the moment, the scientific demonstration is not perfect, but that's the way it is, we're at war, we have to go to war," he insisted.

"I don't see the point of waiting another two or three weeks to tell ourselves that it's worth it. It's now - because the sick are coming to hospitals and they're dying,” he said.

No recommendation, say French health officials

At a press conference Monday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran announced that France’s High Council of Public Health had recommended not using hydroxychloroquine “in the absence of a recommendation, with the exception of serious forms of hospitalisation and on the collegial decision of doctors and under strict medical supervision”.

Véran added that the High Council of Public Health “excludes any prescription in the general population or for forms not severe at this stage, in the absence of any conclusive data”.

Following this opinion, Véran noted that in the coming hours he would issue a decree precisely framing and regulating the use of this treatment outside the traditional marketing authorisations for hydroxychloroquine, "which will be accessible to hospital medical teams who wish it", he added Monday at a press briefing.

This article is an adapt of the original in French.



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