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Hydroxychloroquine trials for COVID-19 suspended by WHO

The controversial anti-malaria drug was one of four experimental treatments being investigated by the organization.

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The WHO's hydroxychloroquine trials have been put on hold.

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The World Health Organization announced Monday it is pausing clinical trials using the controversial malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, to treat patients with COVID-19. The drug has been under intense scrutiny after it was championed by the likes of Elon Musk and US President Donald Trump.

"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," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said during a press briefing. 

The Solidarity trial is the WHO's global investigation into four experimental treatments for COVID-19. It includes remdesivir, lopinavir, interferon beta-1a and hydroxychloroquine. Ghebreyesus confirmed investigations into the other treatments are continuing and notes hydroxychloroquine is "accepted as generally safe in patients with autoimmune diseases and malaria." 

"The decision to ... halt the Solidarity trial for hydroxychloroquine and to review the safety data in patients that underwent this trial is expected and logical," said Gaetan Burgio, geneticist at the Australian National University. "This will enable the researchers to determine whether it is safe to continue this very large clinical trial on over 60 countries and 3,500 patients."   

Trump confirmed on May 18 that he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive treatment for COVID-19, though no evidence currently suggests it can prevent people from contracting the disease.

On May 22, a study published in prestigious medical journal The Lancet looked at over 96,000 patients with COVID-19. Almost 15,000 patients in the cohort had received chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. The study found those taking the drug were more likely to die in hospital and suffered heart problems. 

Researchers are still looking to understand how hydroxychloroquine might benefit patients with COVID-19, including in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin and zinc. There are more than 160 hydroxychloroquine trials ongoing, with the majority assessing the effects of the drug in battling COVID-19 infection, according to the National Institutes of Health's clinical trial website. Some of these trials are run separately to the WHO's Solidarity trial and are likely to continue.