Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug used to treat autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis for decades, is not a cure for COVID-19. A swath of studies, some less than a week old and published in prestigious scientific journal Nature, have demonstrated the drug does not have substantial antiviral activity. And as more data rolls in from human clinical trials, hydroxychloroquine keeps coming up short. Very short. It doesn’t protect against COVID-19 and it doesn’t cure it, either.
So why is it back in the news again?
It appears it’s trending largely because of a series of viral videos published by right wing publication Breitbart are being widely-shared across social media, particularly on Facebook and Twitter.
On Monday, a contingent of physicians, clad in white coats and calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” held a summit on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington. The summit was organized by the right wing “Tea Party Patriots Foundation” and is intended to run for two days.
Videos of the “Frontline Doctors” advocating for the use of hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” outside the Supreme Court began to pop up online Monday afternoon. We’ve decided not to link to them but analysis by an NBC internet reporter indicates they gathered over 20 million views on Facebook.
One in particular, of Houston physician and preacher Stella Immanuel, has gathered the lion’s share of attention, producing an impassioned argument about her use of hydroxychloroquine in 350 patients that visited her clinic. It has been viewed millions of times on Facebook and even tweeted by Donald Trump Jr. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, also retweeted the video.
As a result, Immanuel’s personal follower count on Twitter has jumped by about 30,000 in the space of a few hours. Twitter has begun removing videos associated with the summit, including Immanuel’s and Facebook has also consistently removed the video from its platform. It was one of the top performing posts on the platform at the time of its removal, according to Facebook’s insight tool CrowdTangle.
The spotlight has been placed on Immanuel’s speech, but it predominately uses unscientific language to argue hydroxychloroquine can cure COVID-19, according to Andrew McLachlan, head of the Sydney Pharmacy School at the University of Sydney.
“Passion and anecdote do not provide convincing evidence of safety and efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating and preventing COVID-19,” he says.
“Good evidence to guide practice comes from carefully controlled studies, scrutiny of the results and peer review to ensure findings and claims are robust and correct.”
McLachlan also notes hydroxychloroquine is the most widely investigated drug for COVID-19, based on the number of active trials. He points to the RECOVERY trial, led by Oxford University, as one of the most rigorous. It did not find a significant difference in mortality and did not show a benefit for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Yet, it continues to be pushed as a viable treatment option by various sections of the media, including the likes of Breitbart.
Scientist say arguments have been obscured by rampant politicization.
“It is extraordinary to see [the] hydroxychloroquine agenda being pushed despite the overwhelming evidence against it,” says Gaetan Burgio, a geneticist at the Australian National University in Canberra. “It reminds me a lot anti-vaxxers movement.”
In June, the Food and Drug Administrationfor COVID-19 patients, based on mounting evidence it provides no clinical benefit and in some cases may cause heart problems. There was also a high-profile study, , suggesting hydroxychloroquine caused increased mortality. It even its hydroxychloroquine trials. However, the study was mired in controversy after it was discovered much of the data used in the study was fabricated. It was later retracted.
Retraction aside, the arguments against using hydroxychloroquine extend back to the beginning of the pandemic. The idea it may be a useful drug for preventing or treating COVID-19 has been increasingly scrutinized in more powerful, more significant clinical trials.
In short, there’s overwhelming evidence that hydroxychloroquine doesn’t work. Going viral on the internet doesn’t change that.