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Wash U To Test Malaria Drugs On Hospitalized COVID-19 Patients

The new coronavirus has been detected in dozens of countries, including the United States. It gets its name from its protruding spikes, which resemble a crown.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Infectious disease researchers at Washington University School of Medicine plan to enroll 500 patients with COVID-19 in clinical trials to test two malaria drugs and an antibiotic's effectiveness as treatments for COVID-19.

Doctors at the Washington University School of Medicine will treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients with antimalarial drugs to see if they can fight the disease. 

The clinical trials will test the effectiveness of antimalarial drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin. President Donald Trump has promoted the prescription medicines as treatments for COVID-19, but there is no scientific proof that any drug works against the illness. 

The Food and Drug Administration last week gave hospitals around the country emergency approval to use the drugs to treat the disease.

Few studies have evaluated chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in patients infected with the coronavirus, said Dr. Jane O’Halloran, an infectious disease specialist at Wash U. 

“It’s important things are done in the setting of a trial so we learn what works, what doesn’t work. And we learn what’s safe and what’s not safe,” O’Halloran said. 

Cigna and Express Scripts donated the prescription medicines to the trials at Wash U. Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have been used to treat people with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders. Azithromycin treats respiratory, skin, ear and eye infections. 

Researchers plan to enroll 500 patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in the study. The patients will either receive one of these drugs by itself or be assigned to a group that receives a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. The medicines could stop the virus from replicating itself in the body, said Dr. Rachel Presti, an infectious disease specialist at Wash U. 

“Basically what these drugs do is change the environment in your cells so that viruses aren’t able to hijack things quite as well,” Presti said. 

The antimalarial drugs have shown some effectiveness against other coronaviruses, MERS and SARS. They also produce side effects, such as heart rhythm problems, vision loss and some psychiatric issues that include agitation and depression. Wash U researchers plan to screen patients for abnormal heart rhythms before giving them the drugs. 

The FDA last month also approved Wash U’s application to test plasma transfusion as a treatment for COVID-19. Doctors want to know if the antibodies in the blood of people who’ve recovered from the coronavirus can help those who are ill with the disease. 

At St. Louis University, researchers are testing the use of remdesivir, another drug that’s received much public attention as a potential treatment for COVID-19. That effort is a part of a global National Institutes of Health study to see if it can fight the coronavirus.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.