We’re obviously all looking for some good news and there is in fact some good news here, but as with all good coronavirus news, it should be treated with extreme caution, unfortunately.
The American Federal Drug Agency (FDA) has approved the use of two anti-malarial drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, for the treatment of Coronavirus after what has been described as “promising” early results from their deployment:
“The malaria drug hydroxychloroquine helped to speed the recovery of a small number of patients who were mildly ill from the coronavirus, doctors in China reported this week.
Cough, fever and pneumonia went away faster, and the disease seemed less likely to turn severe in people who received hydroxychloroquine than in a comparison group not given the drug. The authors of the report said that the medication was promising, but that more research was needed to clarify how it might work in treating coronavirus disease and to determine the best way to use it.”
So, not some magical cure, but apparently – based on a very small number of tests – effective at easing symptoms and preventing people from crashing into the serious phase of the illness.
To be fair, the two drugs being used to treat the virus isn’t new news – medics have been experimenting with them for weeks. What’s new is that the FDA has issued approval for their widespread use in the treatment of American patients.
President Trump, fairly unwisely, has been mentioning these two drugs at press conferences for weeks now. To be fair to the man, you can see why he’s doing it: During a crisis, it’s important for us all to have some hope, and the dream right now is an effective drug that can fight the Coronavirus and turn it from a serious illness into something like a common cold. If we find that, then we can all get back to normal.
The problem, of course, was that when Trump mentioned it before it received official approval, some people behaved entirely predictably:
An Arizona man has died and his wife is in a critical condition after both ingested chloroquine phosphate in an apparent effort to stave off Covid-19.
President Donald Trump has touted the medication form of chloroquine as a possible treatment for the virus.
But the toxic ingredient taken by the Phoenix couple was a chemical commonly used to clean fish tanks.
Shortly after ingestion, the couple fell ill, said Arizona-based hospital system Banner Health.
The couple were both in their 60s.
Normally, we’d be relatively slow to blame Trump for some idiot drinking fish tank cleaner – but on this occasion, well, he has to take some of the blame. This is why there’s a process for these things in the first place. You can’t just say “choroquine” out loud like that with a platform like his and expect people to behave responsibly – there were always going to be scared people who’d run to the shop and buy anything with that word written on the label.
But anyway, back to the good news:
The new study, of 62 patients with an average age of about 45, did have a control group. It was conducted at the Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University, in Wuhan, China. The patients were carefully chosen to exclude people with medical problems that could be made worse by hydroxychloroquine, like abnormal heart rhythms, certain eye diseases, and liver or kidney problems.
Half the subjects — the controls — received just the usual care given to coronavirus patients, and half had usual care plus hydroxychloroquine. The usual care included oxygen, antiviral drugs, antibiotics and other treatments.
Their disease was considered mild, even though all had pneumonia that showed up on CT scans. After giving informed consent, they were assigned at random to either the hydroxychloroquine or the control group. They were treated for five days, and their fevers and coughing were monitored. They also had chest CT scans the day before the study treatment began, and the day after it ended.
Coughing and fever eased a day or so earlier in the patients who received hydroxychloroquine, and pneumonia improved in 25 of 31, as opposed to 17 of 31 in the controls.
There is, of course, a health warning for anything that comes out of China related to Coronavirus, but if the US FDA is buying that study, there’s no real reason for us to doubt it.
The figures are good – but they’re not amazing. Nobody should think of these drugs as a cure, because that’s clearly not what they are. At most, it’s like taking Uniflu for a cold. Some people find that it works wonders, other people, like me, find that it’s completely useless.
Either way, the very most it does is ease your runny nose and make you feel a bit better. It doesn’t actually kill your cold.
But – and this is the really important part – the biggest issue that the world is facing with Coronavirus is the number of people with severe symptoms. If Chloroquine is effective at reducing symptoms and preventing pneumonia, even if that’s only in about half the people who would otherwise get pneumonia, then it’s a game-changer for health services.
The problem will be getting enough of it to go around.
One of the things people struggle to understand, given the global nature of the crisis, is just how scarce almost everything is. Testing seems to be a scandal in almost every country – but that’s because the world can only produce so many Coronavirus tests every day. The same thing applies to personal protective equipment: We need more of it? Yeah, so does every country on the planet. You can’t just magic a billion facemasks into existence – somebody has to make them.
The same problem will apply to any drug that comes online as a treatment.
If this stuff does prove to work effectively, then you can be sure that there will be shortages of it very quickly. So the right thing to do is to remain patient, remain at home, and do everything to ensure that neither you, nor your family, need treatment in the first place.