UPDATE: On June 3, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it was resuming its hydroxychloroquine trial after it had been temporarily halted over safety concerns. The results of a multinational registry analysis published in May 2020, raised concerns about the drug and resulted in WHO temporarily halting the trial. However, the authors of the analysis later retracted their paper after the veracity of the data they used was questioned and an independent third-party peer review could not be conducted.
March 21, 2020
US to investigate chloroquine, an old antimalarial drug with a known safety profile
Clinical trials of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, a less toxic derivative of the drug, are already underway in other countries
Chloroquine has been shown to be highly effective at controlling the new coronavirus infection in in vitro laboratory tests
Hydroxychloroquine is more potent than chloroquine in vitro
Chloroquine (Resochin) and hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) have been under investigation as potential treatments for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). However, they have attracted more attention following US President Trump’s announcement that chloroquine would be made available in the US for COVID-19. Stephen Hahn, the FDA Commissioner, clarified that the FDA would be taking a closer look at chloroquine to determine whether it would be of benefit to people with COVID-19. He confirmed they wanted to conduct a large clinical trial to investigate the drug.
What are chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine?
Chloroquine is a 4-amino-quinoline compound that is already approved as an antimalarial and amebicidal drug. Hydroxychloroquine is a hydroxylated version of chloroquine. It is a less toxic metabolite, which is primarily used to treat chronic discoid lupus erythematosus and systemic lupus erythematosus, as well as rheumatoid arthritis. It can also be used to treat and prevent malaria in some cases.
Why the interest in these drugs?
Following the SARS epidemic in 2003, researchers investigated the potential of chloroquine and discovered that it was effective at preventing the spread of that coronavirus in cell culture. Researchers have since confirmed that the drug is also highly effective at controlling infection with this new coronavirus in vitro. In addition, laboratory studies have revealed that hydroxychloroquine is even more potent than chloroquine.
Chloroquine works by blocking the coronavirus from getting into cells, but it also has immuno-modulating activity that may further improve its efficacy.
These drugs are of particular interest because they are already approved for other conditions and their safety profile is well understood. Chloroquine has been used for more than 70 years and generic versions of both drugs are available at low cost.
What investigations are underway?
In early 2020, clinical trials of chloroquine for COVID-19 began in China. Chinese researchers have reported that their initial findings show the drug is effective and it has been included in the Chinese Clinical Guidance for COVID-19 Pneumonia Diagnosis and Treatment (7th edition) guidelines. Belgium and South Korea are also reported to have included chloroquine in their COVID-19 treatment guidelines.
The results from China showed that patients who took the drug showed improvement across a range of indicators compared with those who do not take it. Patients who took chloroquine had their fevers subside sooner, their CT lung images showed improvement, and they were quicker to test negative for the virus. Patients taking chloroquine also appeared to recover more quickly.
On March 18, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it will conduct multi-arm, multi-country clinical trials for potential treatments for COVID-19. Both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are among the drugs which will be tested.
French researchers, who conducted a small trial in 24 patients, have also reported that hydroxychloroquine is useful for reducing viral load in patients with COVID-19. They found that a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin (Zithromax), an antibacterial medication, was particularly beneficial.
What about access to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine?
Importantly, Bayer, which manufactures chloroquine under the brand name Resochin, has donated 3 million tablets of the drug in the US. Sanofi, which markets hydroxychloroquine as Plaquenil, and Novartis have also committed to providing millions of doses of hydroxychloroquine. Other generic manufacturers are also looking to increase supplies of the drugs.
- Stat News. WHO resumes hydroxychloroquine study for Covid-19, after reviewing safety concerns. June 3, 2020. Available at: https://www.statnews.com/2020/06/03/who-resuming-hydroxychloroquine-study-for-covid-19/. [Accessed June 5, 2020].
- Mehra MR, Ruschitzka F, Patel AN. Retraction—Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis. Lancet. Published Online June 4, 2020 https://doi.org/10.1016/ S0140-6736(20)31324-6.
- NPR. WHO Halts Hydroxychloroquine Trial Over Safety Concerns. May 25, 2020. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/25/861913688/who-halts-hydroxychloroquine-trial-over-safety-concerns. [Accessed May 27, 2020].
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- The Wall Street Journal. U.S. Moves to Expand Array of Drug Therapies Deployed Against Coronavirus. March 19, 2020. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-expected-to-detail-new-virus-therapies-but-expansion-could-be-controversial-11584629965. [Accessed March 20, 2020]
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Continues to Facilitate Development of Treatments. March 19, 2020. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-continues-facilitate-development-treatments. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
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- Wang M, Cao R, Zhang L, et al. Remdesivir and chloroquine effectively inhibit the recently emerged novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in vitro. Cell Res 30, 269–271 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41422-020-0282-0.
- Yao X, Ye F, Zhang M, et al. In Vitro Antiviral Activity and Projection of Optimized Dosing Design of Hydroxychloroquine for the Treatment of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). March 9 2020 (online ahead of print). Clin Infect Dis. DOI: 10.1093/cid/ciaa237.
- Reuters. Bayer donates three million malaria tablets to U.S. for potential use against coronavirus. March 20, 2020. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-bayer/bayer-donates-three-million-malaria-tablets-to-us-for-potential-use-against-coronavirus-idUSKBN21637E. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
- ChiCTR. Chinese Clinical Trial Registry. Chloroquine + COVID-19 trial search results. Available at: http://www.chictr.org.cn/searchprojen.aspx?title=Chloroquine&officialname=&subjectid=&secondaryid=&applier=&studyleader=ðicalcommitteesanction=&sponsor=&studyailment=COVID-19&studyailmentcode=&studytype=0&studystage=0&studydesign=0&minstudyexecutetime=&maxstudyexecutetime=&recruitmentstatus=0&gender=0&agreetosign=&secsponsor=®no=®status=0&country=&province=&city=&institution=&institutionlevel=&measure=&intercode=&sourceofspends=&createyear=0&isuploadrf=&whetherpublic=&btngo=btn&verifycode=&page=1. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
- COVID-19-CSC. Chinese Clinical Guidance for COVID-19 Pneumonia Diagnosis and Treatment (7th edition). March 4, 2020. Available at: http://kjfy.meetingchina.org/msite/news/show/cn/3337.html. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
- STAT. WHO to launch multinational trial to jumpstart search for coronavirus drugs. March 18, 2020. Available at: https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/18/who-to-launch-multinational-trial-to-jumpstart-search-for-coronavirus-drugs/. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
- Business Insider. Could a malaria pill from the 1940s treat the coronavirus? Early results for chloroquine have caught the eyes of doctors, analysts - and even Elon Musk. March 18, 2020. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.in/science/news/could-a-malaria-pill-from-the-1940s-treat-the-coronavirus-early-results-for-chloroquine-have-caught-the-eyes-of-doctors-analysts-and-even-elon-musk/articleshow/74698558.cms. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
- The New York Times. With Minimal Evidence, Trump Asks F.D.A. to Study Malaria Drugs for Coronavirus. March 19, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/health/coronavirus-drugs-chloroquine.html. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
- EN24. Hydroxychloroquine would be effective, according to Professor Raoult of the IHU in Marseille, after a first limited test. March 17, 2020. Available at: https://www.en24.news/a/2020/03/hydroxychloroquine-would-be-effective-according-to-professor-raoult-of-the-ihu-in-marseille-after-a-first-limited-test.html. [Accessed March 20, 2020].
- Fierce Pharma. Novartis, Mylan and Teva to supply tens of millions of chloroquine tablets to fight COVID-19. March 20, 2020. Available at: https://www.fiercepharma.com/pharma/new-commitments-mylan-and-teva-move-to-supply-tens-millions-hydroxychloroquine-tablets-to. [Accessed March 21. 2020].
- AA News. France: Sanofi offers potential drug to beat COVID-19. March 18, 2020. Available at: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/france-sanofi-offers-potential-drug-to-beat-covid-19/1770571. [Accessed March 21, 2020].