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WHO temporarily halts trial of hydroxychloroquine over safety concerns

The group wants to "be proactive, err on the side of caution" when it comes to the malaria drug's use in treating COVID-19.
IMAGE: Hydroxychloroquine
Buda Mendes / Getty Images

The World Health Organization announced Monday that it's suspending a trial of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19, saying fears of the drug's potential danger are is causing it to "err on the side of caution."

The medication, best known for use against malaria and autoimmune disorders, has been touted as a possible answer to COVID-19 by President Donald Trump, who said Sunday that he had "just finished" taking the drug after a two-week course.

But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said evidence has shown harmful side effects, including heart problems.

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Tedros cited the British journal The Lancet which published findings Friday showing that hydroxychloroquine doesn't help COVID-19 patients and might even increase deaths.

"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. The other arms of the trial are continuing,” Tedros said in an online briefing from Geneva.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO's chief scientist, said the organization's investigators and regulators in individual countries have raised enough red flags to prompt the halt.

"So the steering committee met over the weekend and decided that in the light of this uncertainty that we should be proactive, err on the side of caution and suspend enrollment, temporarily, into the hydroxychloroquine arm," she said.

The WHO will take at least another week, perhaps two, to gather more data, Swaminathan said.

"We want to use hydroxychloroquine if it is safe, if it reduces mortality, reduces the length of hospitalization, without increasing the adverse events," she added. "So this is a temporary measure."

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Tedros told patients taking the medication for its well-established uses beyond COVID-19 that they shouldn't worry.

"This concern relates to the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in COVID-19," he said. "I wish to reiterate that this drug is accepted as generally safe for use in patients with autoimmune diseases and malaria."

When Trump began touting hydroxychloroquine in March, it caused a brief run on the drug, leaving some patients who use it for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases unable to get their medication.