WHO Suspends Hydroxychloroquine Trials After Reports of High Death Rates in COVID-19 Patients

The World Health Organization said that they are temporarily suspending their clinical trials of the drug hydroxychloroquine, which was being studied as a possible treatment for COVID-19, after several studies have found a higher death rate among the patients given the drug.

WHO announced their decision on Monday, after the largest study yet on hydroxychloroquine found that coronavirus patients given the drug had a significantly higher chance of death than those who had not.

The study, published Friday in the medical journal Lancet, analyzed the health of 96,000 COVID-19 patients across six continents and found that patients who took hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, were also more likely to develop a type of heart arrhythmia that can lead to cardiac arrest. It also echoed similar results from smaller studies on the drug.

WHO had been overseeing clinical trials on the drug in 17 countries with 3,500 patients, separately from the Lancet study, which they called the Solidarity Trial. The trial also included three other drugs that could potentially work as COVID-19 treatments — those drugs will continue being tested, but the hydroxychloroquine trial is on hold.

“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,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, said in a briefing.

WHO's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, explained that the Lancet study results were worrisome enough to suspend the Solidary Trial.

"While it was still a reporting of observational data, it came from multiple registries and quite a large number of patients, 96,000 patients," Swaminathan said. "… We decided we should be proactive, err on the side of caution and suspend enrollment temporarily into the hydroxychloroquine arm [of the Solidarity trial]."

Despite concerns from scientists who have said that hydroxychloroquine needed further testing before it could be used as a COVID-19 treatment, President Donald Trump has pushed the drug as an effective treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. He stunned experts last week when he claimed he was taking a daily dose of hydroxychloroquine as a preventative treatment, and said Sunday that he was now finished with a “two-week course” of the drug.

WHO said that they will take a week or two to decide if they should resume studies on the drug.

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