WHO Pauses Clinical Hydroxychloroquine Trials Over Safety Concerns

The decision followed a recent large-scale study of COVID-19 patients that linked the anti-malaria medication to increased risk of death and heart arrhythmia.

Getty Images/Pharmacy tech holds Hydroxychloroquine pills at Rock Canyon Pharmacy in Provo, Utah

The World Health Organization (WHO) has paused clinical trials testing hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients. The decision followed a large-scale study of COVID-19 patients published last week in medical journal The Lancet that linked the anti-malaria medication to increased risk of death and heart arrhythmia.

The WHO announced in March the creation of an international clinical trial called the Solidarity Trial to test the safety and efficacy of several drugs and drug combinations used to combat the virus. Since then, the organization says that nearly 3,500 patients from 17 countries have enrolled. 

During its Monday media briefing, WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the Executive Group of the Solidarity Trial has temporarily paused the trial’s hydroxychloroquine arm following the Lancet study’s results.

“This concern relates to the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in COVID-19,” Dr. Tedros continued. “I wish to reiterate that these drugs are accepted as generally safe for use in patients with autoimmune diseases or malaria.”

The observational study looked at data from 96,032 coronavirus patients across six continents. Of the patients, 14,888 received some combination of the drugs (which included hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, and an antibiotic macrolide), while 81,144 did not. Researchers found that those who received the medication had an increased risk of death and developing heart arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.

“Although generally safe when used for approved indications such as autoimmune disease or malaria, the safety and benefit of these treatment regimens are poorly evaluated in COVID-19,” the study’s authors stated. 

President Trump has continually promoted hydroxychloroquine as a potential "cure" treatment for the virus, but health officials, including the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci, have repeatedly contradicted him.

The president even said on May 18 that he himself has been taking hydroxychloroquine, then claimed during a Sunday interview on “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson” that he "just finished" taking a two-week course of the anti-malaria drug.

The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved any drug for the treatment of COVID-19 and has warned against using hydroxychloroquine outside of clinical trials or hospitals.