Despite chloroquine hype, we’re still waiting for a ‘game changer’

Los Angeles Times

It’s been about five weeks since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave an emergency blessing to the use of two anti-malaria drugs for the treatment of COVID-19, setting the stage for the stockpiling and distribution of millions of doses. But so far, the drugs have fallen far short of President Donald Trump’s repeated promotion of them as potential “game changers.”

For the most part, studies and clinical experience haven’t shown the hoped-for results of lowered death rates or quicker clearing of the novel coronavirus with chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. For example, a newly released analysis of its use in veterans hospitals found no benefit. In fact, patients treated with hydroxychloroquine plus the usual therapies were more likely to die than those who received only the latter.

That’s not to say the drugs, whose anti-inflammatory capabilities make them useful in treating autoimmune diseases, are necessarily hapless against COVID-19. The more rigorous studies we need haven’t been completed, and it’s unknown whether treatment might be more effective at certain stages of the disease than at others.

But the rush to prejudge one drug or another as a possible magic bullet can be dangerous to our health. And now a vaccine expert has been ousted from his job as the head of a federal agency tasked with speeding the development of drugs and other medical responses to pandemics, apparently because he said that very thing.

Something similar happened with a rapid test for the novel coronavirus put out by Abbott Laboratories. The president hyped the tests, but they were plagued by supply-chain issues and then were found to be giving false-negative results in certain situations, which could mean that infected people were out and about when they should have been quarantined.

The problem isn’t with trying an off-label use of a drug for a disease whose death toll mounts every day, or with helping companies speed the process of developing badly needed diagnostic tests. Decisive measures are needed in times of emergency. But political leaders should refrain from instilling unrealistic hope by boosting one possible treatment above all others, backed by precious little evidence.

The two drugs quickly became a political rallying cry. Fortunately for everyone’s health, scientists went ahead and did what scientists do: Instead of heeding the president’s single-minded promotion, they have been testing numerous drugs.

Again, it is far too early to say whether any of the others being tested will make a serious difference in the number of severe illnesses or deaths. More robust answers should be forthcoming over the next month or two. But Trump made a grave mistake by heavily and repeatedly promoting products for which there was too little evidence. The job of the president is to follow the science, not the other way around.

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