COVIDHydroxychloroquine: COVID “Cure” Linked to 17,000 Deaths

By Sushmitha Ramakrishnan

Published 12 January 2024

Amidst the panic of the first wave of COVID-19, existing drugs were repurposed as a treatment. Some ideas were fatal, including one — hydroxychloroquine — briefly praised by then-President Donald Trump. Researchers have linked hydroxychloroquine to an increased mortality rate of up to 11 percent.

Researchers have linked hydroxychloroquine — an antimalarial drug that was briefly promoted by former US President Donald Trump and others as a “miracle” medicine for COVID-19 — to an increased mortality rate of up to 11 percent.

There was a great panic to find treatments for the respiratory disease during the first wave of the pandemic and, as is standard practice, pharmacologists looked at existing medicines to test whether any would help while we waited for a vaccine and the development of new drugs.

Even the World Health Organization looked at hydroxychloroquine as a potential COVID treatment, said former WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.

However, [our] trial showed no clinical improvements in patients, so we recommended against its use during the pandemic,” Swaminathan told DW. “At that point, we didn’t observe any association with increased mortality as our sample numbers were relatively small. You need large datasets for such findings to emerge.”

She is currently the chairperson of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Scientists: Don’t Repurpose Drugs in a Panic
The researchers writing in the open access journal Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, now say it is possible to link hydroxychloroquine to 17,000 deaths.

They warn against repurposing drugs in a panic. 

Although our estimates are limited by their imprecision,” they write, “these findings illustrate the hazard of drug repurposing with low-level evidence.”

Swaminathan also emphasized the need for better evidence-based approaches during a pandemic, even amid public fear and panic.

Hydroxychloroquine is generally safe, said Swaminathan, but “when you give it to a large number of healthy people preventively, the risk and effects need to be evaluated differently.”

In addition, Swaminathan said, health care systems are likely to face new situations like the COVID pandemic in the future, and we need to be prepared for that: “When the need arises, we should be able to put some drugs into rapid human trials without bottlenecks or delays in approvals.”

Hydroxychloroquine, the “Miracle Cure”
“What do you have to lose? Take it,” said Trump, who hailed hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle cure”.

And he was not alone. Many world leaders followed suit, sharply increasing the sale of the drug globally. Millions hoarded the drug for personal use. Many countries had recommended its frontline health care workers take it everyday as a preventative measure against COVID.

[It] lowers your immune reaction. This is the reason why it was administered initially in early COVID-19 cases, to suppress the cytokine storm,” said Subarna Goswami, a public health specialist from India, where hydroxychloroquine was officially distributed to health care workers as a prophylaxis — a treatment to prevent disease.