WHO pauses hydroxychloroquine studies over safety concerns

    The World Health Organization announced Monday that it was pausing studies in multiple countries of hydroxychloroquine after an analysis of thousands of Covid-19 patients treated with the drug found that it was associated with a higher risk of death.

    The drug — an antimalarial that is also used routinely to treat rheumatoid arthritis — has been touted by President Donald Trump as a potential “gift from God” in fighting the coronavirus, as well as Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a Hasidic doctor in New York who treated more than 1,000 Covid-19 patients in his family practice with the drug in the hopes of preventing them from going into the hospital. Zelenko embraced an unproven regimen to treat Covid-19 that included hydroxychloroquine, one that some other doctors embraced. His quest for publicity during the pandemic, however, resulted in his leaving his longtime practice outside a New York Hasidic village.

    The drug has been controversial since the beginning of the pandemic. Doctors with few other options used the drug in critical care early on, and many took the drug prophylactically. Side affects for the drug are rare, though it can cause arrhythmia and exacerbate existing heart conditions.

    Yet Zelenko’s full-court press to get the president interested in making the drug a go-to treatment for Covid-19 patients who are in high-risk categories drew skepticism from many doctors. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, called evidence of the drug’s effectiveness “anecdotal” in March, and said that the public should wait for data from clinically-controlled studies before embracing its use across the board.

    A retrospective analysis published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet found that those who received hydroxychloroquine had a higher risk of death than those who were not treated with it. (The study did not include patients who may have been given the drug while already in a critical phase of the disease.) Earlier this month, a study from the New York Department of Health concluded that hydroxychloroquine was associated with high risk of heart attack among hospitalized patients.

    The safety of the drug in outpatient use — the manner Zelenko prescribed it — is unclear. In a tweet earlier this month, Dr. David Boulware, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who is leading a clinically controlled study on outpatient use of the drug, said that his results, though not yet fully processed, showed “no serious adverse events due to #hydroxychloriquine.”

    The decision from the WHO to suspend its studies comes a week after Trump announced he was taking the drug himself. In an interview that aired over the weekend, Trump said he was no longer taking the drug, because he had completed a two-week course of the medication.

    Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at feldman@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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