The World Health Organization, which has come under repeated fire from U.S. President Donald Trump, says the science is still unclear on an old malaria drug he’s taking to try to defend against the novel coronavirus. It says it recommends the drug’s use for COVID-19 only in controlled clinical trials for now.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, notes the drug hydroxychloroquine — which Trump said Monday that he‘s taking — is just one of many possible therapies being now tested internationally to see if they are effective against the novel coronavirus.
His comments late Wednesday suggested WHO remains unbowed by Trump’s repeated criticism over its response to the coronavirus pandemic — including most recently his threat to end all funding for the U.N. health agency from its biggest donor, the United States, if it doesn’t reform.
Ryan nonetheless emphasized countries can make their own choices.
“Every sovereign nation, particularly those with effective regulatory authorities, is in a position to advise its own citizens regarding the use of any drug,” he said.
“I would point out however that at this stage (neither) hydroxychloroquine nor chloroquine have been as yet found to be effective in the treatment of COVID-19 or in the prophylaxis against coming down with the disease,” he said.
“In fact, the opposite — in that warnings have been issued by many authorities regarding the potential side effects of the drug.”
Based on laboratory, animal and clinical studies, WHO is overseeing what it calls “Solidarity Trials” involving a number of countries on four possible treatments for COVID-19: remdesivir, which was previously tested as an Ebola treatment; the HIV treatment lopinavir and ritonavir; multiple sclerosis treatment interferon beta-1a; and related drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which have been used to treat illnesses including malaria and rheumatoid arthritis.
“As WHO, we would advise that for COVID-19 these drugs be reserved for use within such trials,” Ryan said.
Trump announced he was taking hydroxychloroquine, which he has repeatedly played up as a treatment for coronavirus, on Monday — the same day he sent a letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus threatening to end U.S. funding for the agency unless it commits to “substantive improvements” in the next 30 days.
Trump’s own administration has warned hydroxychloroquine can have deadly side effects, and both the European Medicines Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat COVID-19 outside of hospital or research settings due to numerous serious side effects that in some cases can be fatal.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the WHO for its early response to the coronavirus outbreak and what he considers its excessive praise of China, where the outbreak began, at a time when his administration’s own response in the U.S. has come under scrutiny.
Trump has already ordered a pause in U.S. funding for the WHO, which totaled nearly $900 million in 2018-19, according to information on the agency’s website. That represented about one-fifth of its total $4.4 billion budget for those years.