Researchers in China found that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was effective in treating patients with mild cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to a study released Tuesday.
Patients treated with hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) saw improvements in coughs, fever and pneumonia compared to a control group, the researchers found.
The randomized trial looked at 62 patients admitted to Renmin Hospital at Wuhan University from Feb. 4 until Feb. 28. Half were treated with a five-day regimen of 400 milligrams of HCQ. The study excluded patients with several or critical cases of coronavirus.
Four patients in the study progressed to severe illness, but all of those were in the group not treated with the malaria drug.
“Considering that there is no better option at present, it is a promising practice to apply HCQ to COVID-19 under reasonable management,” reads the study, which was posted to medRvix, a website that publishes medical research.
An expert on infectious disease expressed optimism at the findings, but noted that more research needs to be done to see if it works on patients with severe cases of coronavirus. (RELATED: Study Raises Hope That Malaria Drug Can Be Used To Cure Coronavirus)
“It’s going to send a ripple of excitement out through the treating community,” Dr. William Schaffner, an expert on infectious disease at Vanderbilt University, told The New York Times.
“If you want to treat people who are already seriously ill, we don’t know how well this will work.”
The time to clinical recovery, or TTCR, was shorter in the test group, researchers found. Twenty-five of the 31 patients in the test group saw improvements with pneumonia, compared to 17 of the 31 in the control group.
President Donald Trump began touting HCQ last month after several studies showed it was effective against coronavirus. Researchers in China found that it was effective against the virus in vitro, or in a test tube. French scientists released a study in February showing improvements in 24 patients treated with HCQ and azithromycin, an antibiotic.
That research helped boost the profile of HCQ as a potential COVID-19 treatment, but some scientists have viewed it with caution because it was not a randomized clinical study.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, has urged caution in interpreting the initial research on HCQ. He has said randomized clinical trials have to be conducted to determine if HCQ is both effective at treating coronavirus and safe for patients. The study out of China found that two patients administered HCQ experienced mild side effects, a rash and a headache.
Trump directed the Food and Drug Administration to fast track clinical studies of the drug. Researchers at the University of Minnesota began a study of 1,500 patients in February. The state of New York is also conducting its own study.
Scientists hope existing drugs such as HCQ or antiviral medications can be used to treat coronavirus patients until a vaccine can be developed. Researchers are also working on a therapy that uses blood plasma from recovered coronavirus patients either as a treatment for people infected with the virus, or to prevent infection in high-risk individuals.
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