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WHO panel: Hydroxychloroquine should not be used to prevent COVID-19

The anti-inflammatory drug hydroxychloroquine should not be used to prevent COVID-19, according to a new recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Multiple clinical trials of more than 6,000 people showed the drug had no meaningful effect on death or admissions to the hospital in people who had no prior exposure to COVID-19. 

The trials showed a "moderate certainty" that not only did hydroxychloroquine have no meaningful effect on laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infection, it also probably increased the risk of adverse effects.

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The WHO's recommendation was published in The BMJ, a medical journal published by the British Medical Association. A WHO expert panel is studying different drugs that could be used to prevent COVID-19 infection, and the hydroxychloroquine recommendation is the first that the panel has published. 

"The panel considers that this drug is no longer a research priority and that resources should be used to evaluate other more promising drugs to prevent COVID-19," the WHO said in a statement.

The recommendations are meant "to provide trustworthy guidance on the management of COVID-19 and help doctors make better decisions with their patients," the WHO said.

Hydroxychloroquine was initially approved as an anti-malaria drug and is also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. 

The drug gained prominence after former President TrumpDonald TrumpUS gives examples of possible sanctions relief to Iran GOP lawmaker demands review over FBI saying baseball shooting was 'suicide by cop' House passes bill aimed at stopping future Trump travel ban MORE, members of his administration and his supporters continuously promoted it as both a miracle treatment for COVID-19 and a prophylactic, despite scant evidence. 

Last spring, Trump said he had been taking hydroxychloroquine, in combination with zinc, as a way to prevent getting COVID-19 after a White House aide was diagnosed with the disease. 

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Trump eventually contracted COVID-19 in October and recovered largely through the use of a monoclonal antibody treatment that at the time was not authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The promotion by Trump and his allies created a run on the drug, resulting in shortages for patients who needed it. Some states are still trying to deal with stockpiles acquired during the height of the hydroxychloroquine craze last spring.

The FDA issued an emergency use authorization for the drug in March 2020, and outside observers felt the agency bowed to political pressure. 

The authorization was eventually withdrawn in June because of serious safety issues. The agency cited clinical trial failures to show the drug may not be effective at treating COVID-19 or preventing it in people who have been exposed and that the potential benefits do not outweigh the risks.

A separate study by the National Institutes of Health found hydroxychloroquine had no benefit for hospitalized patients.