Hydroxychloroquine For COVID-19: Miracle Drug or Premature Claims?

While the drug has shown some potential, hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19 is not 100 per cent certain.

4 min read

The first case of the novel coronavirus was reported on 31 December 2019. While a sure shot treatment is still not known, already existing drugs such as Remdesivir, Lopinavir, Ritonavir, Chloroquine and its derivative Hydroxychloroquine have come up in several clinical trials as possible treatments for COVID-19. These are what's called 'repurposed drugs,' drugs already existing for some treatments, being 'repurposed' for coronavirus.

ICMR’s U-Turn on Hydroxychloroquine


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Among these, Hydroxychloroquine specifically is being endorsed as a potential treatment, so much so that ICMR has already approved on 22 March, its use as prophylactic for the high-risk population such as the healthcare workers and those directly exposed to COVID-19 patients.

After nearly a month of its approval as a prophylactic, in a press conference on 18 April, the head of ICMR's epidemiology, Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, said that an observational study on the impact of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a prophylactic and therapeutic drug was being conducted.

“We launched another study on the side effects observed in healthcare workers who’ve been consuming Hydroxychloroquine. As per the study, the average age of these people was 35 years. The most common side-effect seen in these people was abdominal pain. Ten percent of them have reported abdominal pain, around 6 percent of them complained of nausea and other conditions like hypoglycemia was reported by 1.3 percent of those people.”
Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, Head of Epidemiology, ICMR

Global Curiosity Around The Drug

Deepa Agashe, Scientist at National Centre For Biological Sciences, B'luru says, “A lot of people have this big question in their mind, ‘What evidence do we have to prove that Hydroxychloroquine is a good prophylactic or medicine to treat COVID-19?’All medicine that you see in the market is calibrated carefully for whatever disease it is supposed to fix.”

“The problem with using Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 is that we don’t know whether the side effects of that drug in the context of patients suffering from COVID-19 or other ailments is very high.”
Deepa Agashe

The reason we don't know that yet is because of the availability of only limited scientific studies and results from clinical trials conducted on a small sample of the population. While it's true that hydroxychloroquine is not very expensive and is readily available, one big concern remains that it has not shown impressive results among critically ill patients who are receiving several other medications and have organ failure.

One study that did show results for those with mild symptoms, seemed to indicate that taken with antibiotic azithromycin, it brought down the viral load drastically. But there were major problems with the study.

The Sudden Rise in Demand

“The data supporting Hydroxychloroquine is very weak. The chatter around the drug is frustrating from a public health point of view. It isn’t a perfectly safe drug. Dosage of the drug can impact the heart.”
Dr Dhruv S Kazi, Harvard Scientist & Public Health Expert

Despite not having enough research and studies backing hydroxychloroquine as a cure, the demand for the drug has swelled in the past months as unverified claims around its usage continued to flood social media platforms. The Quint has debunked several such claims.

“India produces 70 percent of the entire world's Hydroxychloroquine. We use it as an anti-malaria drug, for treatment of Lupus; but, out of the 250 crore tablets produced in India every year, only 1 percent is sold in India and the rest of it is exported,” said Aniket Sule from Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education.

India imposed and later lifted a ban on the export of the drug is now supplying the anti-malarial to 55 countries including the United States, Brazil, Israel, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and others.

Shortage of Drug For Other Medical Conditions

This poses another serious problem. There is a shortage of the drug for patients who need it for other conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and malaria. There is a global curiosity around the drug without any significant studies backing it.

“It is a drug that needs to be monitored. The patients who suffer from diseases like Malaria, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus will face a shortage of the drug because we will consume it for COVID-19. As far as the use of Hydroxychloroquine for prevention is concerned, there is no data for that. For treatment, we at least have bad data. I would strongly recommend against it.”
Dr Dhruv S Kazi, Harvard Scientist & Public Health Expert

While the drug has shown some potential, it is extremely important to understand that hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19 is not 100 per cent certain. Mass hysteria around the usage of drug not only poses serious health problems for the consumer it also results in a short of the life-saving drug for people who actually need it.

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