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SPECIAL REPORT: Forget Donald Trump’s silly tweets – malaria pills aren’t the magic bullet

Desperate British are endangering their lives by taking anti-malaria tablets in a “ misplaced ” attempt to fight Covid-19, experts warned last night. They dismissed French researchers’ claims that the decades-old drugs could ‘cure’ patients, citing a controversial study published last month that appeared to show the benefits as’ very flawed ‘and’ dangerous’.

The pills, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, were once commonly used to protect travelers from malaria abroad.

However, they are rarely prescribed for this use today – because the malaria parasites that cause the disease have become resistant to the drugs.

The treatment is also known to cause troubling side effects, including arrhythmias that can lead to sudden, fatal cardiac arrest.

Desperate British put their lives at risk by taking anti-malaria tablets in a 'misplaced' attempt to fight Covid-19, experts warn

Desperate British put their lives at risk by taking anti-malaria tablets in a ‘misplaced’ attempt to fight Covid-19, experts warn

Worryingly, UK pharmacists have seen a spike in private prescriptions for the drugs in recent weeks, The Mail on Sunday has learned. The National Pharmacy Association, which represents independent pharmacists, claimed that members reported an increase in demand and even doctors prescribed themselves for personal use, or friends and family.

The drugs have shown promise in laboratory studies as antivirals. However, in human trials to treat flu, HIV and dengue – a viral infection spread by mosquitoes in the tropics – chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine had no effect.

Chinese researchers have looked at the possibility of helping patients with Covid-19, but one study showed no effect in critically ill patients.

In mid-March, the French microbiologist Dr. Didier Raoult found findings that, in his own words, heralded the “endgame” of the coronavirus – arguing that he had proven that chloroquine could “cure” the disease. But his study included only 26 patients and soon drew a lot of criticism because his results did not mention those who had worsening symptoms.

Despite these concerns, US TV channel Fox News reported the findings and days later, in an extraordinary intervention, President Trump took to Twitter claiming that the drugs could be “ one of the greatest game changers in the history of medicine ” . Both should be “used immediately,” he added.

In addition to rising demand in the US and now in the UK, there were later reports of three people in Nigeria overdosing on the drugs, in an apparent attempt to prevent Covid-19. In response, the UK drug watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, has now warned against using chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 symptoms or prevent infection, outside of clinical studies.

President Trump took to Twitter claiming that the drugs could be ‘one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine’

Dr. Stephen Griffin, an expert in viral infections at the University of Leeds, said, ‘Chloroquine is not something you should take without supervision – it can have very unpleasant side effects. Trump’s approval is the worst thing he could have done. It raises public awareness – and hope – in something that has not been well tested.

“This is putting enormous pressure on people who think we should give it to everyone.”

Virus fact

The NHS is said to have 8,175 fans, but the government believes that at the height of the pandemic, up to 30,000 may be needed.

Dr. Ron Daniels, an intensive care expert and founder of the Sepsis Trust, agreed, saying, “There is no evidence that antimalarials improve results for Covid-19.

Interest in these drugs seems to have been driven by social media, but it’s people who cling to straws.

“If the studies are completed and data comes out that shows they can help, it would be good because they are cheap and easy to get. But for now we are not giving them to patients. ‘

Another front-line NHS hospital adviser said, “I have reviewed the French data and it is dangerous to emphasize such a flawed investigation. Although widely available, hydroxychloroquine carries risks. It can cause heart rhythm problems and – in high doses – even cause death.

“If given as part of a carefully controlled clinical trial, we can manage and mitigate those risks.

“We know in the scientific community that these drugs might have potential, but there is still no convincing evidence that they do, and some evidence to the contrary. It’s troubling that interest is causing people to use it without medical supervision, assuming it could protect them. ‘

Treatment, as shown, is also known to cause troubling side effects, including arrhythmias that can lead to sudden, fatal cardiac arrest

Treatment, as shown, is also known to cause troubling side effects, including arrhythmias that can lead to sudden, fatal cardiac arrest

Treatment, as shown, is also known to cause troubling side effects, including arrhythmias that can lead to sudden, fatal cardiac arrest

Another small study published last week involved 62 patients with moderate symptoms, including pneumonia. In this study, hydroxychloroquine may have led to a faster recovery in some patients, researchers claimed, although more work was needed before conclusions were drawn.

The study compared the results of patients who received the drug with those who were not, and recovered the majority of patients in both groups, the researchers added.

To try to give a definitive answer, the drugs will now be included in the much-discussed World Health Organization-led ‘mega trial’ called SOLIDARITY, along with a number of other experimental drugs.

One of the most promising drugs is Remdesivir, originally developed for the treatment of Ebola, which has been shown to be effective in laboratory and animal studies against MERS and SARS. These are also coronaviruses and are structurally similar to what causes Covid-19.

“Based on laboratory data, remdesivir is the best drug we have,” said Dr. Griffin. In the US, there have been reports of critically ill patients who fully recovered after drug administration.

Two rapid UK studies were launched last week – testing the effect of remdesivir in Covid-19 patients in 15 NHS hospitals. The results could be available in May, while the findings of a similar study in China are expected even earlier.

To try to give a definitive answer, the drugs depicted will now be included in the much-discussed World Health Organization-led 'mega trial' called SOLIDARITY

To try to give a definitive answer, the drugs depicted will now be included in the much-discussed World Health Organization-led 'mega trial' called SOLIDARITY

To try to give a definitive answer, the drugs depicted will now be included in the much-discussed World Health Organization-led ‘mega trial’ called SOLIDARITY

Drug manufacturer Gilead is preparing to increase production of the drug, which is given intravenously. It is not clear how much it could cost. Julian Cole, Gilead, UK and Ireland medical director, said: “It looks promising, but we need the clinical data from the studies to show us how well it works.”

Remdesivir is available compassionately outside the trials in the UK for pregnant women and children who are seriously ill with the disease. More UK hospitals will also soon be available under Gilead’s expanded access program.

Dr. Griffin said, “I would like to fully sympathize with the use of remdesivir because people die from it. We have to do something – and waiting for a vaccine can indeed take a long time. ‘

Hydroxychloroquine is vital for the tens of thousands in the UK who suffer from lupus, which causes inflammation to the joints, skin and organs.

Paul Howard, from Lupus UK, says the charity has received a flood of reports from patients who cannot get their prescription. Worryingly, some have been told it is not clear when the drug will be in stock.

“Without hydroxychloroquine, people with lupus are more likely to have a flare-up of their disease, which will put further pressure on the already tense NHS,” he said.

“Many follow instructions to shield for 12 weeks and fear that if they are hospitalized due to a flare-up, they are at risk of contracting Covid-19.”

A family doctor, who wanted to remain anonymous, reacted appalled at reports that doctors were trying to access malaria drugs and said, “It’s terrible. People think they can buy their way out of this pandemic. But that is not possible. ‘

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