Australian scientists have vowed to continue to research whether taking hydroxychloroquine can prevent people from getting infected with the coronavirus.
Researchers at the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne believe the drug could prevent people from catching SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19.
Hundreds of health workers in New South Wales and Victoria received the drug as part of the Institute’s COVID SHIELD trial in an attempt to try to determine its effectiveness as a prophylactic.
Hydroxychloroquine came to public attention when US President Donald Trump said he was using the antimalarial drug to “protect” himself from the coronavirus.
Melbourne researchers believe hydroxychloroquine (pictured) could prevent COVID-19
Prescriptions for the drug subsequently skyrocketed, before it was withdrawn from major testing trials because it was found to be ineffective in reducing the impact of COVID-19.
The scientific journal The Lancet published and then retracted a study based on fake data claiming that coronavirus cases taking hydroxychloroquine had an increased death rate.
COVID SHIELD co-principal investigator Marc Pelligrini said researchers did not see the drug as a treatment, but as a preventative treatment.
“The evidence that the drug doesn’t particularly help with treatment really never deterred us because we always believed that… if the drug had a role to play in preventing people from contracting COVID-19, it must be even before they’ve been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, ”he told The Australian.
Scientists at Melbourne’s Walter & Eliza Hall Institute (pictured) are studying whether the drug works as a COVID-19 prophylactic
Test-tube studies have shown that hydroxychloroquine can prevent the replication of COVID-19 and discourage overgrowth.
Claire Lobb is an emergency care nurse at Alfred Hospital and from around 230 frontline healthcare workers signed up for the four-month trial.
“Hydroxychloroquine is a cheap and readily available drug with very few side effects. If there is any chance that this drug could help prevent frontline healthcare workers from contracting COVID-19, I think it’s important that we do a proper clinical trial to test it, ”a- she declared.
Ms Lobb said she was keen to be involved and excited about whether the drug was useful as a prophylactic.
“It would really help to have a cheap and widely available medicine to reduce the transmission of the virus to frontline health workers, especially while we are waiting for a vaccine,” she said.
Nurse Claire Lobb (pictured right) is among 230 frontline health workers who have signed up for the COVID SHIELD trial on hydroxychloroquine
While Australian researchers are hoping that hydroxychloroquine could prevent COVID-19, a US study found on Thursday that the drug offered no protection.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that about 6.3% of hospital workers who took the drug regularly got the virus, compared to 6.6% of people who did not.
The effect, they said, was “negligible” and although a slightly higher proportion of people without the drug got sick, it wasn’t a big enough difference to suggest that hydroxychloroquine was working.
Whether or not the drug may help treat people who already have Covid-19 has not been investigated.
WHY IS HYDROXY-CHLOROQUINE CONTROVERSIAL?
Hydroxychloroquine – under the brand name Plaquenil – is an inexpensive drug that has been used to prevent malaria and treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis for decades.
It was touted as a miracle drug by Donald Trump despite no evidence that he could treat Covid-19.
Hope was sparked early in the crisis when a French study suggested the drug might have antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects.
It sparked a wave of research across the world, Trump’s endorsement, and emergency clearance from US regulators.
The RECOVERY trial is the first randomized study to provide concrete evidence for the drug.
The results will likely have a ripple effect around the world, where tens of thousands of coronavirus patients are still prescribed hydroxychloroquine.
Leading doctors have also warned that the drug can cause serious side effects and even interrupt the process that makes the heart beat in time.
A trial in Brazil was halted because so many of the enrolled coronavirus patients who received the drug developed these arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats).
According to WebMD, side effects can include:
- Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, dizziness or headache
- Slow heartbeat, symptoms of heart failure (such as shortness of breath, swelling of ankles / feet, unusual fatigue, unusual / sudden weight gain)
- Mental / mood changes (such as anxiety, depression, rare suicidal thoughts, hallucinations)
- Hearing changes (such as ringing in the ears, hearing loss), easy bruising / bleeding
- Signs of infection or liver disease
- Muscle weakness, unwanted / uncontrolled movements (including tongue / face twitching), hair loss, change in hair / skin color
- Low blood sugar, severe dizziness, fainting, fast / irregular heartbeat, convulsions.