The World Health Organization is suspending its international trial of hydroxycholorquine, the anti-malarial drug repeatedly touted by President Donald Trump as a coronavirus treatment, because of concerns that it’s not safe to use on people with COVID-19.
“The Executive Group has implemented a temporary pause of the hydroxychloroquine arm within the Solidarity Trial while the safety data is reviewed,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing.
Three other drugs in the trial involving 17 countries will continue to be tested.
WHO officials cited a large study of 100,000 patients with COVID-19 published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet. Researchers found that patients who received hydroxychloroquine in the hospital had a “significantly higher risk of death” compared to those who were not given the drug. In addition, “we were unable to confirm a benefit of hydroxychloroquine” on in-hospital outcomes for COVID-19, the researchers concluded.
An April study of hospitalized U.S. veterans who were also given the drug revealed similar findings.
Trump has relentlessly pitched use of the anti-malarial drug as a COVID-19 treatment, beginning in March, when he called it a “game changer.”
The president claimed Sunday in an interview that he had just finished a two-week course of treatment of hydroxychloroquine. “And by the way, I’m still here,” he said.
The WHO testing suspension comes just days after U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie revealed that 1,300 American veterans suffering from COVID-19 have been treated with hydroxychloroquine, beginning in March. The VA has no intention of stopping use of the drug on vets, he said in a letter Friday to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Veterans have complained that they’re being used as lab rats for Trump’s pet drug.
“We request the immediate halt of this drug for our veterans until further information on its true impact is determined,” Veterans of Foreign Wars senior vice commander William Schmitz told The Washington Post on May 1 as concerns about the drug were growing.
Tedros emphasized that concerns about the drug — and chloroquine, which is also being studied — is limited to its use as a treatment for COVID-19. The drugs are “accepted as generally safe for use in patients with autoimmune diseases [lupus and rheumatoid arthritis] or malaria,” for which they’re usually prescribed.
WHO did not detail specific concerns about hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients, but one of its side effects is fatal heart arrhythmia. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned against using the drug to treat COVID-19 outside of a clinical trial or hospital because of “serious heart rhythm problems.”
Trump has dismissed negative findings about hydroxychloroquine. He called the recent findings that the drug showed no benefit for American veterans and a higher rate of death a “Trump enemy statement,” insisting that the study’s researchers were politically motivated.
Former top federal vaccine official Rick Bright testified before Congress early this month that he was demoted for refusing to make potentially dangerous hydroxychloroquine more widely available, which was being pushed by Trump.
The Trump administration ordered 29 million doses of hydroxychloroquine before it underwent trials for COVID-19 treatment. The VA also bulk-ordered some 6.3 million tablets, according to Wilkie’s letter.
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