Canada leads testing for COVID-19 treatment but cautions public about use

Apr 16, 2020

Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec residents who have been exposed to the coronavirus are being recruited to participate in a clinical trial designed to test the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to treat and prevent COVID-19 infection. HCQ, which is normally used to treat lupus, malaria and HIV, has received increased media attention in recent weeks, since U.S. President Trump has referred to the drug as a “game changer.”

The research study is being carried out by researchers at McGill University, with three study arms in Calgary, Montreal, and Ontario, respectively. Researchers began to recruit volunteers on March 17. In his interview with Narcity, Dr. Ilan Schwartz, the principal investigator of the Alberta study arm, said the results could be ready in weeks.

Researchers plan to recruit up to 1,500 participants across Canada, with 1,500 participants already enrolled in a similar study in the U.S. “There’s interest in hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a potential intervention to treat and perhaps prevent COVID-19,” said Dr. Schwartz. “But we have no idea if it truly works in people.”

Once accepted into the study, participants will receive a five-day course of either HCQ or a placebo.

“We’re going to be giving medication to people after they’ve been exposed and possibly infected to see if we can prevent that infection from taking hold, no medication has proven to be effective in either preventing or treating COVID-19. And that’s why we need to do these studies.”

Dr. Schwartz to CBC News.

HCQ had received a lot of media attention following the publication of a controversial research study by French researchers, demonstrating that the drug could be effective in treating COVID-19 patients. Subsequently, public figures including Donald Trump and Tesla founder Elon Musk had made public statements about HCQ being a potential cure for the coronavirus.

Lack of evidence for effectiveness

However, according to many researchers, the current evidence behind the effectiveness of HCQ in treating COVID-19 is inconclusive. In his interview with CBC News, Dr. Chris Mody, head of the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious disease at the University of Calgary’s Cumming school of medicine, said that the results of three existing studies examining the effectiveness of the drug have been mixed.

One of the clinical trials conducted demonstrated no significant effectiveness of HCQ. In addition, another trial showed that individuals who took HCQ showed improved recovery from pneumonia. Finally, the third trial demonstrated that more individuals who didn’t take HCQ transitioned from being tested positive for COVID-19 to testing negative for the disease. 

“I wouldn’t say on the basis of that number of patients and two trials that look positive and one that looks negative, that we should be using hydroxychloroquine as the standard of care… I would describe the evidence for hydroxychloroquine is that it indicates it should be studied further. That’s about as far as I would go with the evidence there,”

Dr. Mody to CBC News.

Controversy and warnings

Following President Trump’s Tweet published on March 21, which claimed that using a combination of HCQ and azithromycin would become ‘one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,’ many public figures expressed enthusiasm for the drug. Moreover, the President had claimed the treatment had already been approved by the FDA, a statement that turned out to be false.

Following these statements, thousands of individuals in the U.S. had taken HCQ, sometimes suffering dangerous consequences. So far, one Arizona man died and his wife was hospitalized after taking chloroquine phosphate, sold as an additive to disinfect fish aquariums.

Canada’s public health officials have issued warnings against the use of ‘untested drugs’ to treat COVID-19 due to hype created around the potential effectiveness of HCQ.

According to Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, HCQ is simply one of a ‘vast suite’ of drugs being tested for use against COVID-19. Moreover, she has urged the public to avoid taking HCQ until the completion of appropriate scientific tests and its approval. Dr. Tam stated that taking HCQ may not only be ineffective, but also put individuals’ health at risk, since the drug has its own specific side effects.