Hydroxychloroquine: Can malaria drug defend coronavirus? Rutgers researchers to find out

With a political battle underway over the use of a malaria drug to treat coronavirus, Rutgers Cancer Institute has launched a clinical trial that could yield results as soon as next month, officials said Wednesday.

Dr. Steven Libutti, the institute’s director, said researchers will study the response of 160 COVID-19 patients to hydroxychloroquine, a drug that previously has been used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

“We feel the pressure to accrue (data) as quickly as we can,” Libutti said.

The trial is starting as New Jersey remains a hotspot for the coronavirus. The state as of Wednesday reported more than 47,000 cases and 1,500 deaths, trailing only New York.

President Donald Trump, New Jersey lawmakers and some doctors have been touting the potential of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus, pointing to anecdotal evidence of patients who have seen their symptoms ease after taking the medicine.

But public health officials say they can’t be sure of its effectiveness until the drug can be studied scientifically. Patients using the drug might be improving on their own, they note.

Up to now, patients themselves can only speculate about the drug’s impact.

George Lowe, 65, of Sayreville, and the radiology administrator at Mount Sinai Queens, came down with COVID-19 two weeks ago. He suspects he got the disease at the hospital, where his department performed X-rays and other imaging tests on coronavirus patients.

His fever spiked to 102.6 before steadying at 100.3, and he had tightness in his chest.

His doctor prescribed him a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, an antibiotic. But it took 16 days before he began to think his fever had broken.

While on hydroxychloroquine, Lowe said his fever was a roller coaster, up and down, and he began to hallucinate. But did it do the job?

“You want to tell everyone what you think they want to hear,” Lowe said. “Everyone is depending on you to kind of help them feel better about you. I don’t know what helped. Sometimes I thought it helped. Sometimes my chest hurt.”

For now, doctors are prescribing the medications, willing to take a risk to fight a devastating illness.

In a March study, French researchers found hydroxychlorquine significantly reduced what is known as the viral load, but it had a small sample size.

Rutgers Cancer Institute researchers, based in New Brunswick, began to enroll patients in a clinical trial last week.

Libutti described how it will work:

The patients, whose symptoms range from mild to severe, will be separated into three groups. One group will have no medication to start. A second group will be given hydroxychloroquine. And a third will receive a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.

Scientists will collect samples from an oral swab or saliva to measure the virus level before patients begin to take the medication. They’ll then collect samples after three days and again after six days, measuring the increase or decrease in viral load.

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