Make your home page

Hydroxychloroquine explained: What you need to know about the potential COVID-19 cure

FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

Hydroxychloroquine is being touted as a potential cure for the novel coronavirus. But what exactly is this drug and how did it make its way into the COVID-19 spotlight?

What is hydroxychloroquine?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydroxychloroquine is used for the treatment and prevention of malaria. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medical use in the United States back in 1955 and is available by prescription only in the generic form or under the brand name Plaquenil. Hydroxychloroquine is also a highly effective treatment for autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis because of its anti-inflammatory effects. 

It is not, however, FDA approved for the treatment and prevention of the coronavirus. 

Why is hydroxychloroquine being considered as a possible treatment for the coronavirus?

A study published in the March issue of “Cell Discovery” showed the antiviral effects of hydroxychloroquine were effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus infection among cells in vitro. 

In addition to the antiviral benefits, hydroxychloroquine’s anti-inflammatory effects might also aid in a positive immune response among those infected with the virus.

However, just because something works in a test tube, doesn’t mean it will work in humans. And theory doesn’t always translate into practice.

Is hydroxychloroquine currently being used to treat COVID-19 infected patients?

Yes. In late March, the FDA granted emergency approval allowing hospitals to use the drug in patients infected with the coronavirus. This is called off-label prescribing and is justified only when a medicine is deemed safe to treat a condition for which it does not have FDA approval. Possible side effects of the drug are considered mild and can include nausea, diarrhea and rash. 

When will we know if hydroxychloroquine is an effective cure or not?

More evidence is needed in the form of clinical trials. The National Institutes of Health announced it began a clinical trial today to test the safety and effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. The research is being conducted at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and scientists are aiming to enroll 500 adults in the study. Duke Clinical Research Institute is also slated to begin a clinical trial to assess the drug’s effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 infections among healthcare workers at high risk for the novel coronavirus.