The French government said Wednesday that doctors can no longer treat COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine, a controversial and potentially harmful drug nonetheless being promoted by US President Donald Trump.
The move came after two French advisory bodies and the World Health Organization warned this week that the drug, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, had been shown to be potentially dangerous in several studies.
The urgency of the coronavirus outbreak has prompted some doctors to prescribe the drug despite a lack of research to demonstrate its effectiveness against the new coronavirus.
A French infectious disease specialist, in particular, insists he has successfully treated dozens of patients with hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin.
The doctor, Didier Raoult, has caught the ear of Trump, who stunned his own administration last week by revealing he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure against COVID-19.
Raoult has already rejected a comprehensive study published last week in The Lancet medical journal, which found that administering hydroxychloroquine or its related compound chloroquine actually increased the risk of dying for many patients.
“How can a messy study done with ‘big data’ change what we see?” Raoult asked in a video posted this week. Here we have had 4,000 people go through our hospital, you don’t think I’m going to change because there are people who do ‘big data,’ which is a kind of completely delusional fantasy,” he said.
Under the new French rules, the drug can be used only in clinical trials — making it unclear if Raoult would be able to continue using it at his hospital in Marseille.
Hydroxychloroquine, also used to treat malaria, is sold under the brand name Plaquenil by French pharma giant Sanofi, which promised to offer governments millions of doses if studies proved it could be safely used in the coronavirus fight.
It has long been known to produce serious side effects, including heart arrhythmia, in some people.
The French government changed the rules in March to let doctors prescribe it for coronavirus infection, hoping to find a treatment quickly since a vaccine is not expected until next year at the earliest.
President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Marseille to meet Raoult, a move critics warned could be interpreted as endorsement of a treatment that has sharply divided medical experts.
On Tuesday, the agency said it would suspend clinical trials with the drug for COVID-19, in line with a move by the WHO to pause trials for a safety review.
France’s HCSP health advisory council also advised Tuesday against using the drug as a coronavirus treatment.
US regulators have also advised against taking the drug because of health risks, but that has not deterred Trump, who said last week that “I’ve heard a lot of good stories” about its potential in the coronavirus fight.