The drug hydroxychloroquine was prescribed off-label during the pandemic and touted in particular by a prominent French researcher.
The antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine may have induced nearly 17,000 deaths in six countries during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This molecule was presented during the pandemic as a miracle cure by a minority of health professionals, among them the French microbiologist Didier Raoult.
The scientist’s belief that the drug was a cure for COVID-19 was soon echoed by some policymakers. French President Emmanuel Macron notably visited his facility and US President Donald Trump recommended the drug in 2020, stating that he had already taken it.
The use of the drug sparked controversy as many health specialists noted the lack of research or scientific evidence of its effectiveness against COVID-19.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorisation of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) in March 2020 but revoked it in June.
The drug was found in particular to cause severe side effects such as heart rhythm abnormalities.
Nearly 17,000 deaths induced by hydroxychloroquine
A new study published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy now estimates the fallout from the drug’s off-label use.
Researchers led by Jean-Christophe Lega, a Professor of Therapeutics in the Lyon, France hospital system, investigated studies conducted in France, the United States, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Turkey from March 2020 until July 2020.
“HCQ use was associated with an 11 per cent increase in the mortality rate in a meta-analysis of randomised trials,” the study noted, citing a meta-analysis published in 2021 in Nature which the researchers used to calculate the number of deaths induced by the drug.
The estimated number of deaths in European countries was roughly 240 in Belgium, 199 in France, 1,822 in Italy, and 1,895 in Spain.
“What we need to bear in mind is that this is a rough estimate, in the sense that it only concerns a few countries over a short period, and that the total number of deaths is probably much higher,” Lega told French broadcaster France 3.
The results should be taken with caution as it is a statistical analysis. One limitation of the study was that in France, Turkey, and Belgium, in particular, data concerning exposure to the drug was scarce.
Yet the researchers say: “This result argues in favour of tightly regulating access to off-label prescriptions during future pandemics”.