Hydroxychloroquine linked to nearly 17,000 deaths in six countries: Study

Hydroxychloroquine was promoted as a miracle cure for COVID-19.

Hydroxychloroquine was promoted as a miracle cure for COVID-19. Photo: Getty

A malaria drug hailed as a miracle cure for COVID-19 by the likes of Donald Trump, George Christensen and Craig Kelly has been linked to nearly 17,000 deaths in six countries during the pandemic, according to a new study.

The study, published in the February issue of Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, found hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) was associated with an 11 per cent increase in mortality rate through analysis of randomised trials and estimated that 16,990 hydroxychloroquine-related deaths occurred in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the United States.

“These findings illustrate the hazard of drug repurposing with low-level evidence,” the study’s authors said.

HCQ, a drug used to treat malaria and autoimmune conditions for decades, was touted by doctors, politicians and scientists as a potential treatment for COVID-19, creating drug shortages in Australia and worldwide.

Christensen and Kelly co-authored an ‘open letter’ in October 2020 claiming that the use of hydroxychloroquine was safe and effective in treating COVID-19, despite evidence to the contrary, and that states like Queensland and Victoria should not ban its prescription by doctors.

Kelly went as far as to claim that former Victorian premier Daniel Andrews could face imprisonment for banning its use, relying on the testimony of retired immunologist Robert Clancy to attest to the drug’s effectiveness.

Too good to be true

To people like Kelly, Christensen and those distrustful of science and modern medicine, HCQ and other drugs like ivermectin were a cheap and effective cure that would deliver instant results.

Although a small study highlighted promising results in using it to treat COVID-19, causing Trump to tweet that was “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” experts started to notice irregularities and issues with the study’s methodology.

A larger study of 233 participants in 2021 found that HCQ had no more effect than a placebo for hospitalised COVID-19 patients.

Numerous trials since have reaffirmed that the drug simply doesn’t have a benefit for treating COVID-19 or the subsequent strains because of unfavourable risk-benefit and the association with a significant increase in mortality.

The study highlights that the number of related deaths “is likely to be directly related to the promotion of its prescription by scientists, physicians and health agencies”.

“In February and March 2020, the use of this treatment was widely promoted based on preliminary reports suggesting a potential efficacy against COVID-19,” the study said.

Ulterior motives?

Clive Palmer, who funded Kelly’s unsuccessful election campaign as the leader of his United Australia Party after leaving the Liberal Party, imported more than 1000 kilograms of the drug into Australia before Australia’s pharmaceutical authority blocked its use in treating COVID-19.

clive palmer UAP

Clive Palmer imported millions of doses of HCQ, only for them to be destroyed after sitting in a warehouse. Photo: AAP

Five million doses of HCQ were destroyed in 2021 after sitting in a warehouse for eight months.

As early as 2020, Australia’s top doctors were adamant that the drug did not work when treating COVID-19, but misinformation from politicians and even medical professionals has continued.

Stella Immanuel, a Cameroonian-American physician and pastor, was a major spreader of COVID-19 misinformation and helped legitimise hydroxychloroquine on social media platforms when a video promoting it was shared by Trump and his son.

She was the highest prescriber of hydroxychloroquine in the US and potentially the world, writing more than 69,000 scripts.

Doctors in Australia have been investigated for promoting and prescribing the drug, after hosting webinars with Kelly and other medical professionals promoting its use, while media outlets like Sky News often hosted guests promoting its use as a treatment.

Since March 2020, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has strongly discouraged its use because of “limited evidence for effect against COVID-19, as well as the risk of significant adverse effect”.

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