Covid-19: The problems caused by the chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine hype

Experts are scrambling to buy time in the Covid-19 vaccine race by testing the potential of existing drugs like chloroquine and its milder cousin hydroxychloroquine. These drugs have been featuring in the news, especially since their optimistic endorsement by President Donald Trump.  

While optimism is what we are looking for as the pandemic sweeps the globe, false hope based on one medication might keep people from the next best thing, an article in Nature suggests.

Not only will false and premature claims of chloroquine as an effective treatment against Covid-19 cause a surge in demand, depleting stock for those who truly need the medication for its designed purpose, but it may also keep people from conducting more promising clinical trials and considering other treatments.

It’s basically a case of placing all your eggs in one basket. Doctors who endorse clinical trials are saying that patients tend to ignore other trials and treatments, stated neurologist Sergio Iván Valdés-Ferrer from the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition in Mexico City.

He said that there is a “tremendous bias” in the clinical treatments people choose. He is currently trialling a dementia drug for treating Covid-19.

A threat to lupus sufferers

While chloroquine is used to treat malaria, hydroxychloroquine is currently the only medication known to increase survival in patients with systemic lupus, where the immune system attacks different parts of the body.

But after President Donald Trump publicly referred to hydroxychloroquine as a potential game changer in the fight against Covid-19, it quickly led to a supply shortage.

"Without access to these medications, a lot of lupus patients will have difficulties controlling their symptoms, which could cause their lupus to worsen and increase their risk for kidney disease and flare-ups, such as painful or swollen joints," dermatologist Dr Allison Arthur said in an American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) news release.

Not only is the shortage of this drug a real problem for those who do suffer from systemic lupus, but hydroxychloroquine might cause harm in those using it for Covid-19.

Not enough evidence 

Earlier in April 2020, Health24 published an article debating the potential of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment. Professor Wolfgang Preiser from the Division of Medical Virology at the University of Stellenbosch stated that the evidence of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine being beneficial for Covid-19 patients is minimal, and generally flawed.

He too added that touting the drug without sufficient evidence can spark panic buying, leading to a shortage of supply for those who need the drug most – to do what it’s been proven to do.

Side effects

As with any other drug, there is the risk of side effects when chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine is are not used correctly. These include nausea, skin rashes, diarrhoea and mood swings, but can also have a toxic effect on the heart, which could be fatal.

A waiting game

While lockdown conditions might be frustrating, touting medications for Covid-19 without enough evidence can be dangerous. Rigorous testing of a number of drugs is currently underway, and soon reliable results from clinical trials will be available.

READ | Doctors warned against prescribing unproven medication for Covid-19

WATCH | Covid-19: The facts about chloroquine

READ | Coronavirus | The chloroquine debate: Two experts weigh in

Image credit: Unsplash
Read more on: coronavirus

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