Hydroxychloroquine Trial Gets French President's Attention as 460,000 Sign Petition Supporting Treatment

The anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are receiving attention from French President Emmanuel Macron as nearly 460,000 people signed a petition asking French officials to allow their wider use as potential treatments for coronavirus.

On Thursday evening, Macron went to the southeastern coastal city of Marseille to meet Didier Raoult, a microbiology researcher who conducted two studies of the drug on coronavirus patients with moderate symptoms.

Although Raoult's studies showed positive results, both have been criticized for their methodology and limitations, according to the American magazine Science.

Raoult's first study involved only 42 patients, and Raoult personally decided which ones received drugs and which received placebos, a move which critics say could have biased his results in favor of the treatment. The International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents which published the study later withdrew its support stating that it didn't meet the journal's "expected standard."

Raoult's second study was published as a preprint without peer-review by fellow medical researchers. It also had no control group of patients who didn't receive the medication, leaving readers no way to contrast the study's reported findings.

U.S. President Donald Trump has touted Raoult's studies as indicators that more doctors should consider administering chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to coronavirus patients. Raoult himself gives hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin to his coronavirus patients even though it's not yet approved by French authorities.

Disavowing the "dictatorship of the methodologists," Raoult stands by his studies and says he will document his treatment's success soon in another medical journal.

French president Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron, takes part in a March 19, 2020 videoconference of the "economic task force" in the green Presidential meeting room at the Elysee Palace in Paris alongside French economic leaders and government members concerned about the coronavirus epidemic and confinement measures. Ludovic Marin/POOL/AFP/Getty

Hydroxychloroquine is just one of four treatments currently being tested in a European Union-wide clinical trial, though some of the trial's participants are refusing to accept any treatment besides hydroxychloroquine, hindering the research process.

Meanwhile, Macron's spokespeople say that he isn't jumping to conclusions, but merely met with Raoult as part of a large group of consultations as he considers making an address next Monday over France's next steps in dealing with the epidemic.

National interest in chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been propelled somewhat by an online petition asking French officials to authorize the drugs' use for mild coronavirus cases.

The petition, which has since garnered over 460,000 signatures, was started by Philippe Douste-Blazy, a former Minister of Health who was once France's candidate to lead the World Health Organization (WHO), and Christian Perronne, head of infectious diseases at the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital.

One medical official told French television media that she and her doctors have been physically threatened for the medications and given forged prescriptions for them. Increased demand for the drugs has also threatened the medication's availability for patients with malaria and those with lupus and arthritis, two ailments that the drug is commonly used to treat "off-label."

In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it has been working closely with other government agencies and academic centers to investigate whether hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine can effectively treat patients with mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19.

If successful, the drugs could be used to potentially reduce the duration of symptoms and viral shedding, both of which would help prevent the spread of the disease.