World Health Organization (WHO) Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan pictured on January 12, 2020 in Geneva.

Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization is restarting its hydroxychloroquine study for the treatment of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — after it paused the trial last week to conduct a safety review. 

The WHO says it has not seen “any differences in mortality” among coronavirus patients who use the drug when compared to those who don’t. 

But whether hydroxychloroquine “works or doesn’t work” to help treat or prevent coronavirus cases is still unknown. 

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The World Health Organization’s hydroxychloroquine trial for coronavirus treatment is moving forward once again after the agency paused the drug trial for a safety review last week.

That pause was based on some early reports (now in question) that the drug might have been linked to an increased risk of death for coronavirus patients. 

“When we announced last week that we were temporarily suspending the enrollment into the hydroxychloroquine arm of the Solidarity Trial, it was based on some reports of increased mortality,” WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan said during a press conference with reporters on Wednesday.

“We are now fairly confident, not having seen any differences in mortality. The data safety monitoring committees of both Solidarity and Recovery [coronavirus treatment studies] have recommended that the trial can continue.” 

There is no treatment or vaccine yet for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Existing drugs including hydroxychloroquine (an anti-malarial drug that’s also used for lupus and arthritis) and remdesivir (an antiviral drug) are being tried out. 

“As of now, there’s no evidence that any drug actually reduces the mortality in patients who have COVID-19,” Swaminathan said.

She said that’s precisely why it’s so critical to continue this trial.

“The only way to get definitive answers is to do well-conducted randomized trials,” Swaminathan said. “That’s the only way to find out what really are those drugs or those strategies that will reduce death, that will reduce illness, that will reduce infection rates in communities. And we should be guided by the science, and by the evidence.”

Story continues

President Donald Trump tried out hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure against the coronavirus last month after several people working at the White House came down with the illness, but it’s still not clear if hydroxychloroquine could really do much as a coronavirus prophylaxis. 

For now, the US Food and Drug Administration says the general public should not take hydroxychloroquine to treat or prevent COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, outside of hospital settings or clinical trials. Taking the drug (especially in conjunction with some other medications) can trigger irregular heart rhythms. 

“We owe it to the patients to have a definitive answer on whether or not a drug works or doesn’t work,” Swaminathan said. “And that can only be done through well-conducted randomized trials.”

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