Hmmmm: University of Minnesota researcher says hydroxychloroquine could work -- and we'll know soon

About the best information in this report from the Twin Cities’ local NBC affiliate on Donald Trump’s use of hydroxychloroquine is this comment from Dr. David Boulware: “The hype is probably overblown on both sides.” Before Trump began taking the malaria drug as prophylaxis against potential exposure to COVID-19, the White House reached out to the University of Minnesota researcher, who is overseeing a study of the drug among 2800 health-care workers taking the drug. Boulware briefed the president’s team on potential issues, but noted that none of his study subjects have seen any serious side effects.

Comments suggesting that Trump is risking death are therefore absurdly overblown, but so too are claims that its effectiveness has been established. Boulware notes that the chemical does appear to attack the virus, but that’s no guarantee that it will work similarly in the human body. “Whether what works in a Petri dish, does that actually translate to humans?” he poses, and says we may know within a month:

Dr. Boulware is overseeing a clinical trial at the U to determine whether hydroxychloroquine is effective in preventing the coronavirus. They currently have about 1500 front line medical workers and first responders nationwide taking part. The participants take a safe dose once or twice a week, and researchers are checking whether those people contract COVID-19.

The U will be the first to publish results of such a study, Boulware said. They expect to see preliminary data in about a month. But he adds they still want to get about 3000 participants and will finish the study sooner with more participants. …

Boulware says lab experiments have found the drug can prevent the coronavirus from infecting cells. But they need to find out if the same is true for people who take the pill.

“Whether what works in a Petri dish, does that actually translate to humans? It is really unknown. But that’s what we’re looking for,” Boulware said.

As for dangers, all drugs have them, Boulware points out. So far, though, he has seen no seriously adverse reactions in his study, although they already know that it is contraindicated by preexisting heart disease:

Boulware said they do not select anyone for hydroxychloroquine clinical studies who have pre-existing heart issues. And he said of the 2800 participants in three separate trials, none has experienced serious or life-threatening side effects.

“If you give it to everyone on earth, some people are going to have severe side effects and may have problems. For the vast majority of people, they’ll tolerate quite well,” Boulware said. “There’s been a lot of information in the press. Is it dangerous? Does it work? The hype is probably overblown on both sides.”

In other words, at the very least it can’t hurt, as long as it doesn’t replace more effective therapeutic strategies. Does it help? There is scientific data to suggest that it might, as Boulware says, but whether it does and how much it helps won’t be known for sure until his study and others are complete.

What seems lost in all of this hyperpartisan strum und drang over hydroxychloroquine is that we should all hope it works. It’s cheap, readily available, in the public domain, and the potential for mass production is therefore high (even if the profit margin would be lower than for new meds). We already know the side effects and contraindications. Rooting one way or the other won’t impact the determination of the drug’s effectiveness, but rooting against it is quite perverse, especially if it’s all about Trump. Even if people don’t like Trump, shouldn’t we hope that the US president is at least potentially getting some extra protection in this crisis? And shouldn’t we all hope that such a handy drug could make a dent in the pandemic?

Except for the researchers, of course, who need to have emotional distance from their subject matter in order to be effective. Boulware’s study won’t be the last word on this approach, but it could be one of the most substantial to date once the study is complete. Boulware isn’t rooting one way or the other, which is precisely what we’d expect and hope to see. “If this is effective,” Boulware tells KARE11, “we should use it.” If not, then Trump and everyone else should stop using it for COVID-19 prevention or treatment. The rest of us should take this same wait-and-see attitude, and stop freaking out over a drug that has been in wide use for decades.