The World Health Organization said Monday that it will temporarily drop hydroxychloroquine — the anti-malarial drug US President Trump says he is taking — from its global study into experimental COVID-19 treatments, saying that its experts need to review all available evidence to date.
In a press briefing, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that in light of a paper published last week in the Lancet that showed people taking hydroxychloroquine were at higher risk of death and heart problems, there would be “a temporary pause” on the hydroxychloroquine arm of its global clinical trial.
“This concern relates to the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in COVID-19,” Tedros said, adding that the drugs are approved treatments for people with malaria or autoimmune diseases. Other treatments in the trial, including the experimental drug remdesivir and an HIV combination therapy, are still being tested.
Tedros said the executive group behind WHO’s global “Solidarity” trial met on Saturday and decided to conduct a comprehensive review of all available data on hydroxychloroquine and that its use in the trial would be suspended for now.
Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said there was no indication of any safety problems with hydroxychloroquine in the WHO trial to date, but that statisticians would now analyze the information.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
“We’re just acting on an abundance of caution based on the recent results of all the studies to to ensure that we can continue safely with that arm of the trial,” he said. WHO said it expected to have more details within the next two weeks.
Last week, Trump announced he was taking hydroxychloroquine although he has not tested positive for COVID-19. His own administration has warned the drug can have deadly side effects, and both the European Medicines Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat COVID-19 outside of hospital or research settings due to numerous serious side effects that in some cases can be fatal.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are approved for treating lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and for preventing and treating malaria, but no large rigorous tests have found them safe or effective for preventing or treating COVID-19.