In the early days of a pandemic caused by a virus with no existing treatments, many different compounds are often considered and tried in an attempt to help patients.
It all relates back to a profound question: How do we know what we know?
Many of these treatments fall by the wayside as evidence accumulates regarding actual efficacy. At that point, other treatments become standard of care once their benefit is proven in rigorously designed trials.
However, about seven months into the pandemic, we're still seeing political resurrection of a treatment that has been systematically studied and demonstrated in well-designed randomized controlled trials to not have benefit.
The hydroxychloroquine (and by extension chloroquine) story is a complicated one that was difficult to follow even before it became infused with politics. It is a simple fact that these drugs, long approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), work in Petri dishes against various viruses including coronaviruses. This set of facts provided biological plausibility to support formally studying their use in the clinical treatment and prevention of COVID-19. As evidence from these studies accumulates, it is a cognitive requirement to integrate that knowledge and not to evade it. This also means evaluating the rigor of the studies.
In recent days we have seen groups yet again promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine in, what is to me, a baffling disregard of the multiple recent studies that have shown no benefit. Indeed, though FDA-approved for other indications like autoimmune conditions and preventing malaria, the emergency use authorization for COVID-19 has been rescinded (which means the government cannot stockpile it). Still, however, many patients continue to ask for the drug, compelled by political commentary, viral videos, and anecdotal data. Yet most doctors (like myself) are refusing to write the prescriptions outside of a clinical trial – a position endorsed by professional medical organizations such as the American College of Physicians and the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Why this disconnect?
It all relates back to a profound question: How do we know what we know? In science, we use the scientific method – the process of observing reality, coming up with a hypothesis about what might be true, and testing that hypothesis as thoroughly as possible until we discover the objective truth.
The confusion we're seeing now stems from an inability to distinguish between anecdotes reported by physicians (observational data) and an actual evidence base. This is understandable among the general public but when done by a healthcare professional, it reveals a disdain for reason, logic, and the scientific method.
The Difference Between Observational Data and Randomized Controlled Trials
The power of informal observation is crucial. It is part of the scientific method but primarily as a basis for generating hypotheses that we can test. How do we conduct medical tests? The gold standard is the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. This means that neither the researchers nor the volunteers know who is getting a drug and who is getting a sugar pill. Then both groups of the trial, called arms, can be compared to determine whether the people who got the drug fared better. This study design prevents biases and the placebo effect from confounding the data and undermining the veracity of the results.
For example, a seemingly beneficial effect might be seen in an observational study with no blinding and no control group. In such a case, all patients are openly given the drug and their doctors observe how they do. A prime example is the 36-patient single-arm study from France that generated a tremendous amount of interest after President Trump tweeted about it. But this kind of a study by its nature cannot answer the critical question: Was the positive effect because of hydroxychloroquine or just the natural course of the illness? In other words, would someone have recovered in a similar fashion regardless of the drug? What is the role of the placebo effect?
These are reasons why it is crucial to give a placebo to a control group that is as similar in every respect as possible to those receiving the intervention. Then we attempt to find out by comparing the two groups: What is the side effect profile of the drug? Are the groups large enough to detect a relatively rare safety concern? How long were the patients followed for? Was something else responsible for making the patients get better, such as the use of steroids (as likely was the case in the Henry Ford study)?
Looking at the two major hydroxychloroquine trials, it is apparent that, when studied using the best tools of clinical trials, no benefit is likely to occur.
All of these considerations amount to just a fraction of the questions that can be answered more definitively in a well-designed large randomized controlled trial than in observational studies. Indeed, an observational study from New York failed to show any benefit in hospitalized patients, showing how unclear and disparate the results can be with these types of studies. A New York retrospective study (which examined patient outcomes after they were already treated) had similar results and included the use of azithromycin.
When evaluating a study, it is also important to note whether conflicts of interest exist, as well as the quality of the peer review and the data itself. In the case of the French study, for example, the paper was published in a journal in which one of the authors was editor-in-chief, and it was accepted for publication after 24 hours. Patients who fared poorly on hydroxychloroquine were also left out of the study altogether, skewing the results.
What Randomized Controlled Trials Have Shown
Looking at the two major hydroxychloroquine trials, it is apparent that, when studied using the best tools of clinical trials, no benefit is likely to occur. The most important of these studies to announce results was part of the Recovery trial, which was designed to test multiple interventions in the treatment of COVID-19. This trial, which has yet to be formally published, was a randomized controlled trial that involved over 1500 hospitalized patients being administered hydroxychloroquine compared to over 3000 who did not receive the medication. Clinical testing requires large numbers of patients to have the power to demonstrate statistical significance -- the threshold at which any apparent benefit is more than you would expect by random chance alone.
In this study, hydroxychloroquine provided no mortality benefit or even a benefit in hospital length of stay. In fact, the opposite occurred. Hydroxychloroquine patients were more likely to stay in the hospital longer and were more likely to require mechanical ventilation. Additionally, smaller randomized trials conducted in China have not shown benefit either.
Another major study involved the use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent illness in people who were exposed to COVID-19. These results, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, included over 800 patients who were studied in a randomized double-blind controlled trial and also failed to show any benefit.
But what about adding the antibiotic azithromycin in conjunction with hydroxychloroquine? A three-arm randomized controlled study involving over 500 patients hospitalized with mild to moderate COVID-19 was conducted. Its results, also published in The New England Journal of Medicine, failed to show any benefit – with or without azithromycin – and demonstrated evidence of harm. Those who received these treatments had elevations of their liver function tests and heart rhythm abnormalities. These findings hold despite the retraction of an observational study showing similar results.
Additionally, when used in combination with remdesivir – an experimental antiviral – hydroxychloroquine has been shown to be associated with worse outcomes and more side effects.
But what about in mildly ill patients not requiring hospitalization? There was no benefit found in a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 400 patients, the majority of whom were given the drug within one day of symptoms.
Some randomized controlled studies have yet to report their findings on hydroxychloroquine in non-hospitalized patients, with the use of zinc (which has some evidence in the treatment of the common cold, another ailment that can be caused by coronaviruses). And studies have yet to come out regarding whether hydroxychloroquine can prevent people from getting sick before they are even exposed. But the preponderance of the evidence from studies designed specifically to find benefit for treating COVID-19 does not support its use outside of a research setting.
Today – even with some studies (including those with zinc) still ongoing – if a patient asked me to prescribe them hydroxychloroquine for any severity or stage of illness, with or without zinc, with or without azithromycin, I would refrain. I would explain that, based on the evidence from clinical trials that has been amassed, there is no reason to believe that it will alter the course of illness for the better.
Failing to recognize the reality of the situation runs the risk of crowding out other more promising treatments and creating animosity where none should exist.
What has been occurring is a continual shifting of goalposts with each negative hydroxychloroquine study. Those in favor of the drug protest that a trial did not include azithromycin or zinc or wasn't given at the right time to the right patients. While there may be biological plausibility to treating illness early or combining treatments with zinc, it can only be definitively shown in a randomized, controlled prospective study.
The bottom line: A study that only looks at past outcomes in one group of patients – even when well conducted – is at most hypothesis generating and cannot be used as the sole basis for a new treatment paradigm.
Some may argue that there is no time to wait for definitive studies, but no treatment is benign. The risk/benefit ratio is not the same for every possible use of the drug. For example, hydroxychloroquine has a long record of use in rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus (whose patients are facing shortages because of COVID-19 related demand). But the risk of side effects for many of these patients is worth taking because of the substantial benefit the drug provides in treating those conditions.
In COVID-19, however, the disease apparently causes cardiac abnormalities in a great deal of many mild cases, a situation that should prompt caution when using any drugs that have known effects on the cardiac system -- drugs like hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.
My Own Experience
It is not the case that every physician was biased against this drug from the start. Indeed, most of us wanted it to be shown to be beneficial, as it was a generic drug that was widely available and very familiar. In fact, early in the pandemic I prescribed it to hospitalized patients on two occasions per a hospital protocol. However, it is impossible for me as a sole clinician to know whether it worked, was neutral, or was harmful. In recent days, however, I have found the hydroxychloroquine talk to have polluted the atmosphere. One recent patient was initially refusing remdesivir, a drug proven in large randomized trials to have effectiveness, because he had confused it with hydroxychloroquine.
Moving On to Other COVID Treatments: What a Treatment Should Do
The story of hydroxychloroquine illustrates a fruitless search for what we are actually looking for in a COVID-19 treatment. In short, we are looking for a medication that can decrease symptoms, decrease complications, hasten recovery, decrease hospitalizations, decrease contagiousness, decrease deaths, and prevent infection. While it is unlikely to find a single antiviral that can accomplish all of these, fulfilling even just one is important.
For example, remdesivir hastens recovery and dexamethasone decreases mortality. Definitive results of the use of convalescent plasma and immunomodulating drugs such as siltuxamab, baricitinib, and anakinra (for use in the cytokine storms characteristic of severe disease) are still pending, as are the trials with monoclonal antibodies.
While it was crucial that the medical and scientific community definitively answer the questions surrounding the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19, it is time to face the facts and accept that its use for the treatment of this disease is not likely to be beneficial. Failing to recognize the reality of the situation runs the risk of crowding out other more promising treatments and creating animosity where none should exist.
In late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States, David Fajgenbaum, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, devised a 10-day challenge for his lab: they would sift through 1,000 recently published scientific papers documenting cases of the deadly virus from around the world, pluck out the names of any drugs used in an attempt to cure patients, and track the treatments and their outcomes in a database.
Before late 2019, no one had ever had to treat this exact disease before, which meant all treatments would be trial and error. Fajgenbaum, a pioneering researcher in the field of drug repurposing—which prioritizes finding novel uses for existing drugs, rather than arduously and expensively developing new ones for each new disease—knew that physicians around the world would be embarking on an experimental journey, the scale of which would be unprecedented. His intention was to briefly document the early days of this potentially illuminating free-for-all, as a sidebar to his primary field of research on a group of lymph node disorders called Castleman disease. But now, 11 months and 29,000 scientific papers later, he and his team of 22 are still going strong.
On a Personal Mission<p>In the science and medical world, Fajgenbaum lives a dual existence: he is both researcher and subject, physician and patient. In July 2010, when he was a healthy and physically fit 25-year-old finishing medical school, he began living through what would become a recurring, unprovoked, and overzealous immune response that repeatedly almost killed him.</p><p>His lymph nodes were inflamed; his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were faltering; and he was dead tired all the time. At first his doctors mistook his mysterious illness for lymphoma, but his inflamed lymph nodes were merely a red herring. A month after his initial hospitalization, pathologists at Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease—a particularly ruthless form of a class of lymph node disorders that doesn't just attack one part of the body, but many, and has no known cause. It's a rare diagnosis within an already rare set of disorders. Only about 1,500 Americans a year receive the same diagnosis. </p><p>Without many options for treatment, Fajgenbaum underwent recurring rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, the treatment would offer temporary respite from Castleman symptoms, but bring the full spate of chemotherapy side effects. And it wasn't a sustainable treatment for the long haul. Regularly dousing a person's cells in unmitigated toxicity was about as elegant a solution to Fajgenbaum's disease as bulldozing a house in response to a toaster fire. The fire might go out (though not necessarily), but the house would be destroyed.</p><p>A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.</p><p>Fajgenbaum became hellbent on devoting his practice and research to making similar breakthroughs for others. He founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, to coordinate the research of others studying this bewildering disease, and directs a laboratory consumed with studying cytokine storms—out-of-control immune responses characterized by the body's release of cytokines, proteins that the immune system secretes and uses to communicate with and direct other cells. </p><p>In the spring of 2020, when cytokine storms emerged as a hallmark of the most severe and deadly cases of COVID-19, Fajgenbaum's ears perked up. Although SARS-CoV-2 itself was novel, Fajgenbaum already had almost a decade of experience battling the most severe biological forces it brought. Only this time, he thought, it might actually be easier to pinpoint a treatment—unlike Castleman disease, which has no known cause, at least here a virus was clearly the instigator. </p>
Thinking Beyond COVID<p>The week of March 13, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fajgenbaum found himself hoping that someone would make the same connection and apply the research to COVID. "Then like a minute later I was like, 'Why am I hoping that someone, somewhere, either follows our footsteps, or has a similar background to us? Maybe we just need to do it," he says. And the CORONA Project was born—first as a 10-day exercise, and later as the robust, interactive tool it now is. </p><p>All of the 400 treatments in the CORONA database are examples of repurposed drugs, or off-label uses: physicians are prescribing drugs to treat COVID that have been approved for a different disease. There are no bonafide COVID treatments, only inferences. The goal for people like Fajgenbaum and Stone is to identify potential treatments for further study and eventual official approval, so that physicians can treat the disease with a playbook in hand. When it works, drug repurposing opens up a way to move quickly: A range of treatments could be available to patients within just a few years of a totally new virus entering our reality compared with the 12 - 19 years new drug development takes.</p><p>"Companies for many decades have explored the use of their products for not just a single indication but often for many indications," says Stone. "'Supplemental approvals' are all essentially examples of drug repurposing, we just didn't call it that. The challenge, I think, is to explore those opportunities more comprehensively and systematically to really try to understand the full breadth of potential activity of any drug or molecule."</p>
The left column shows the path of a repurposed drug, and on the right is the path of a newly discovered and developed drug.
Cures Within Reach
A Confounding Virus<p>The FDA declined to comment on what drugs it was fast-tracking for trials, but Fajgenbaum says that based on the CORONA Project's data, which includes data from smaller trials that have already taken place, he feels there are three drugs that seem the most clearly and broadly promising for large-scale studies. Among them are <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30503-8/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>dexamethasone</u></a>, which is a steroid with anti-inflammatory effects, and <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-drug-combination-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>baricitinib</u></a>, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, both of which have enabled the sickest COVID-19 patients to bounce back by suppressing their immune systems. The third most clearly promising drug is <a href="https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/full-dose-blood-thinners-decreased-need-life-support-improved-outcome-hospitalized-covid-19-patients" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>heparin</u></a>, a blood thinner, which a recent trial showed to be most helpful when administered at a full dose, more so than at a small, preventative dose. (On the flipside, Fajgenbaum says "it's a little sad" that in the database you can see hydroxychloroquine is still the most-prescribed drug being tried as a COVID treatment around the world, despite over the summer being <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2021801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>debunked</u></a> widely as an effective treatment, and continuously since then.)</p><p>One of the confounding attributes of SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to cause such a huge spectrum of outcomes. It's unlikely a silver bullet treatment will emerge under that reality, so the database also helps surface drugs that seem most promising for a specific population. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2773108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Fluvoxamine</u></a>, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, showed promise in the recovery of outpatients—those who were sick, but not severely enough to be hospitalized. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2772185" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Tocilizumab</u></a>, which was actually developed for Castleman disease, the disease Fajgenbaum is managing, was initially written off as a COVID treatment because it failed to benefit large portions of hospitalized patients, but now seems to be effective if used on intensive care unit patients within 24 hours of admission—these are some of the sickest patients with the highest risk of dying. </p><p>Other than fluvoxamine, most of the drugs labeled as promising do skew toward targeting hospitalized patients, more than outpatients. One reason, Fajgenbaum says, is that "if you're in a hospital it's very easy to give you a drug and to track you, and there are very objective measurements as to whether you die, you progress to a ventilator, etc." Tracking outpatients is far more difficult, especially when folks have been routinely asked to stay home, quarantine, and free up hospital resources if they're experiencing only mild symptoms. </p><p>But the other reason for the skew is because COVID is very unlike most other diseases in terms of the human immune response the virus triggers. For example, if oncology treatments show some benefit to people with the highest risk of dying, then they usually work extremely well if administered in the earlier stages of a cancer diagnosis. Across many diseases, this dialing backward is a standard approach to identifying promising treatments. With COVID, all of that reasoning has proven moot. </p><p>As we've seen over the last year, COVID cases often start as asymptomatic, and remain that way for days, indicating the body is mounting an incredibly weak immune response initially. Then, between days five and 14, as if trying to make up for lost time, the immune system overcompensates by launching a major inflammatory response, which in the sickest patient can lead to the type of cytokine storms that helped Fajgenbaum realize his years of Castleman research might be useful during this public health crisis. Because of this phased response, you can't apply the same treatment logic to all cases.</p><p>"In COVID, drugs that work late tend to not work if given early, and drugs that work early tend to not work if given late," says Fajgenbaum. "Generally this … is not a commonplace thing for a virus." </p>
Thursday, March 11th, 2021 at 12:30pm - 1:45pm EST
On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
SPEAKERS:<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://leaps.org/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY3Mzc4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjYwNjU4NX0.Tdrh5pze5P4XxgiJK3J4JFrsrijfabIzNJz-AATghDE/image.jpg?width=534&coordinates=365%2C3%2C299%2C559&height=462" id="87554" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b6c7311be7aec25807f9af19b683bf1d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="534" data-height="462" />
Dr. Paul Offit speaking at Communicating Vaccine Science.commons.wikimedia.org<p><strong><a href="https://www.research.chop.edu/people/paul-a-offit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Paul Offit, M.D.</a>, is the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, and he has lent his expertise to the advisory committees that review data on new vaccines for the CDC and FDA.</strong></p>
Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh, FACP, FIDSA
Yale Medicine<p><strong><a href="https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/onyema_ogbuagu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh</a>, is an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine who treats COVID-19 patients and leads Yale's clinical studies around COVID-19. He ran Yale's trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.</strong></p>
Dr. Eric Topol
Dr. Topol's Twitter<p><strong><a href="https://www.scripps.edu/faculty/topol/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Eric Topol, M.D.</a>, is a cardiologist, scientist, professor of molecular medicine, and the director and founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He has led clinical trials in over 40 countries with over 200,000 patients and pioneered the development of many routinely used medications.</strong></p>