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The World Health Organization is pressing pause on its trial of hydroxychloroquine as treatment for COVID-19 out of fear for the drug’s potential danger. The medication best known for its use against malaria and autoimmune disorders has been at the heart of controversy as President Donald Trump, among others, has touted its use to fight the coronavirus. But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a news briefing Monday that the organization would temporarily suspend its trial of the drug over safety concerns.
In explaining the decision, Tedros cited the British journal The Lancet, which published findings last week that showed there was no positive effect of the drug on coronavirus patients. In fact, the study found that those who took hydroxychloroquine or its related drug chloroquine were more likely to die or develop an irregular heart rhythm. “Not only is there no benefit, but we saw a very consistent signal of harm,” said one study leader. Other studies had already raised question about the drug’s effectiveness. “The executive group has implemented a temporary pause of the hydroxychloroquine arm within the Solidarity Trial while the safety data is reviewed by the data safety monitoring board. The other arms of the trial are continuing,” Tedros said. He did emphasize though that the drugs “are accepted as generally safe for use in patients with autoimmune diseases or malaria.”
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist, noted that investigators within the organization, as well as regulators in member countries, had raised enough questions about the safety of the drug to warrant the pause in the study. “So the steering committee met over the weekend and decided that in the light of this uncertainty, that we should be proactive, err on the side of caution, and suspend enrollment, temporarily, into the hydroxychloroquine arm,” she said. For now, the WHO will gather more data before deciding how to proceed.
Trump said in an interview that aired Sunday that he had “just finished” a two-week course of hydroxychloroquine. “Finished, just finished,” he said in the interview that aired on Sinclair Broadcasting. “And by the way, I’m still here.” When asked about why he would take a drug that was still being studied, Trump said he heard great things. “I believe in it enough that I took a program because I had two people in the White House that tested positive,” he said. “I figured maybe it’s a good thing to take a program. You know, we take a little bit of a period of time, I think it was two weeks. But hydroxy has had tremendous, if you look at it, tremendous, rave reviews.” The Food and Drug Administration has warned against using the drug outside of a hospital setting due to the risk of heart problems.
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