The World Health Organization said Monday that i will temporarily halt the use of hydroxychloroquine — the anti-malarial drug for treating coronavirus patients due to safety concerns.
The announcement came after a study published in The Lancet medical journal last week suggested the drug could increase the risk of death among COVID-19 patients, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference.
“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,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
He said the other arms of the trial – a major international initiative to hold clinical tests of potential treatments for the virus – were continuing.
Hydroxychloroquine is normally used to treat arthritis but public figures including US President Donald Trump have backed the drug as a virus treatment, prompting governments to bulk buy.
Last week, Trump announced he was taking hydroxychloroquine although he has not tested positive for COVID-19. His own administration has warned the drug can have deadly side effects, and both the European Medicines Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat COVID-19 outside of hospital or research settings due to numerous serious side effects that in some cases can be fatal.
In an interview aired on Sunday on Sinclair Broadcasting Trump said he had completed his course.
“Finished, just finished,” Trump said. “And by the way, I’m still here. To the best of my knowledge, here I am.”
Brazil’s health minister also recommended last week using hydroxychloroquine, as well as the anti-malarial chloroquine, to treat even mild COVID-19 cases.
The Lancet study found that both drugs could produce potentially serious side effects, particularly heart arrhythmia.
And neither drug helped patients hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the study, which looked at the records of 96,000 patients across hundreds of hospitals.
Tedros said both drugs were generally safe for patients with autoimmune diseases or malaria.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Monday’s briefing the Solidarity Trial had been looking only at the effects of hydroxychloroquine and not chloroquine.
The decision to suspend enrollment for trials using hydroxychloroquine was “a temporary measure”, she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which began late last year in China, has killed nearly 350,000 people worldwide and infected almost 5.5 million, according to figures compiled by the U.S-based Johns Hopkins University.
While there is still no approved treatment or vaccine, drastic measures that at one point saw half of humanity under lockdown have reduced transmission rates in several countries.
As many nations begin to gradually lift restrictions, the WHO stressed the need to maintain physical distancing and to scale up efforts to test and detect cases.
“All countries need to remain on high alert,” WHO expert Maria Van Kerkhove said.
“The virus will take the opportunity to amplify if it can.”
WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan warned against the idea that the pandemic might move in seasonal waves.
“Making an assumption that it is on a downward trajectory, and the next danger point is some time in October or November, I think that would be a dangerous assumption,” he said.