After President Donald Trump publicly stated in Mid-March that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine could be an effective tool in fighting the coronavirus, the political backlash was immediate, with many of Trump’s political adversaries mocking the recommendation.
Some even accused Trump of crimes against humanity for recommending the drug, that is routinely used as treatment for those with Malaria:
I can’t take it anymore. I’ve been to The Hague. I’m making a referral for crimes against humanity tomorrow. Today’s press conference was the last straw. I know the need for a prosecution referral when I see one. https://t.co/XQin24gqY4
— Rep. Tavia Galonski (@RepGalonski) April 6, 2020
But there was some indication that the drug might be effective and several groups, including WHO, started testing the drug as a possible cure.
On its face, it was a major finding: Antimalarial drugs touted by the White House as possible COVID-19 treatments looked to be not just ineffective, but downright deadly. A study published on 22 May in The Lancet used hospital records procured by a little-known data analytics company called Surgisphere to conclude that coronavirus patients taking chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine were more likely to show an irregular heart rhythm—a known side effect thought to be rare—and were more likely to die in the hospital.
Within days, some large randomized trials of the drugs—the type that might prove or disprove the retrospective study’s analysis—screeched to a halt. Solidarity, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) megatrial of potential COVID-19 treatments, paused recruitment into its hydroxychloroquine arm, for example.
But just as quickly, the Lancet results have begun to unravel—and Surgisphere, which provided patient data for two other high-profile COVID-19 papers, has come under withering online scrutiny from researchers and amateur sleuths. They have pointed out many red flags in the Lancet paper, including the astonishing number of patients involved and details about their demographics and prescribed dosing that seem implausible. “It began to stretch and stretch and stretch credulity,” says Nicholas White, a malaria researcher at Mahidol University in Bangkok.
WHO has since announced it would resume test trials of the drug. READ: WHO resumes hydroxychloroquine trial after problems are found with a study calling the drug dangerous