Australia's Health Authority Warns Against Use of Hydroxychloroquine To Treat COVID-19

The Australian government's health authority has warned against the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) said experimental use of medications such as hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus prevention and treatment was not recommended. The body added the drug should only be prescribed as part of a clinical trial.

"Due to safety concerns, and the unknown effects of prescribing these medications for off-label usage, such as for COVID-19 infection, there are no current recommendations to treat patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 illness," the AHPPC said in a statement.

"Appropriate dosage of medications for use in COVID-19 are not yet determined, and there is concern that if used inappropriately, off-label use of medications may cause toxicity and lead to adverse patient outcomes."

The AHPPC notes that there is currently very limited evidence to support the use of medications for the treatment of COVID-19.

"The health and safety of all Australians is of paramount importance, and at this time, the AHPPC considers the evidence supporting off-label usage of medications for COVID-19 is not sufficient," the organization said. "We will continue to monitor the outcomes of clinical trials, and will update our recommendations as more information becomes available."

Despite this, Australia's Department of Health has said hydroxychloroquine may be given "in a controlled environment in the treatment of severely ill patients in hospital."

The anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is being explored in clinical trials for its potential to reduce the severity of coronavirus symptoms or provide protection against infection. Although many have touted the medication, including President Donald Trump, its effectiveness against the disease in the wider population is not yet known.

Experts in virology and infectious disease have warned that hydroxychloroquine can cause severe and life-threatening side effects. The drug, which is used to treat some autoimmune conditions such as lupus, should not be used to treat conditions for which it has not been tested, they say. There have been various reports on how effective it is, but there is not yet any concrete evidence from large peer-reviewed studies that the drug works against coronavirus.

A small study of 36 patients by researchers in France suggested the drug could clear the infection in a few days, but the trial was not randomized—meaning the patients receiving the treatment were deliberately selected.

Another small study published by the Journal of Zhejiang University in China showed that patients who took hydroxychloroquine did not fight off COVID-19 more often than those who did not get the medicine. Thirty patients were involved in the research, which was randomized.

This week, a hospital in France halted an experimental treatment using hydroxychloroquine on at least one coronavirus patient after it became a "major risk" to their cardiac health.

The University Hospital Center of Nice was trialing hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 patients. A statement from the hospital said it was testing four experimental treatments, one of which included hydroxychloroquine. In an interview with the French daily newspaper Nice-Matin, Professor Émile Ferrari, the head of the cardiology department at the Pasteur hospital in Nice, said the side effects had already been identified, with some patients having to stop treatment because of the risk posed.

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A pack of hydroxychloroquine sulfate medication John Phillips/Getty Images/Getty