Veterans With COVID-19 Given Trump-Touted Hydroxychloroquine Showed No Benefits, Study Finds


In a retrospective study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, doctors examined patient outcomes for U.S. military veterans with COVID-19 who were given hydroxychloroquine (an anti-malaria drug touted by President Trump as coronavirus treatment) and compared them to patients who did not receive that treatment; the researchers concluded there was no overall benefit—and that there were more deaths among patients treated with hydroxychloroquine alone.

A bottle of hydroxychloroquine.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip


With 368 patient records from Veterans Health Administration analyzed, the Associated Press reported that the study is the largest look at the use of hydroxychloroquine with or without azithromycin, an antibiotic.

The records of three roughly equal groups were examined⁠—those given hydroxychloroquine alone, those given hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, and those who received neither drug.

About 28% of patients given hydroxychloroquine plus usual care died, compared to 22% who received the drug plus azithromycin.

About 11% of those who received neither drug passed away, but when the researchers controlled for other factors, they concluded this represented a similar risk to the group that received the combination of the two drugs, but that “the risk of death from any cause was higher” among those who took hydroxychloroquine alone.

Hydroxychloroquine made no difference in patients’ needs for ventilators, in combination or alone, according to the study.

“These findings highlight the importance of awaiting the results of ongoing prospective, randomized, controlled studies before widespread adoption of these drugs,” the researchers wrote.

Crucial quote

“I think we’re all rather underwhelmed” at what’s been seen in patients who tried hydroxychloroquine, University of Madison infection control director Nasia Safdar told the AP. “But now I think that people have realized we don’t know if it works or not.” 

Key background

No treatment (either a drug or vaccine) exists for COVID-19, which has infected over 2.5 million people and killed nearly 175,000 worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The VA study has been submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine, but it has not yet been reviewed by other scientists. After the Food and Drug Administration granted approval for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to be tested as possible COVID-19 treatments, President Trump has publicly touted the drug multiple times. U.S. poison centers have seen an uptick in hydroxychloroquine abuse since Trump first mentioned the drug on March 19. Hydroxychloroquine, the Washington Post reported, also has serious side effects, including a possible risk of irregular heartbeats, when COVID-19 is causing a heart infection in some of the most seriously ill patients. The NIH’s official clinical guidelines recommend not using hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin together⁠—except in clinical trials⁠—due to the risk of toxicity. A Brazilian study of the drug was halted when one-quarter of patients given higher doses developed heart rhythm problems.

What to watch for

The AP noted that other, more rigorous studies by the National Institutes of Health and other organizations are in progress. U.S. pharma company Pfizer

is looking at the potential use of azithromycin as a treatment by itself. 

Further reading

Outcomes of hydroxychloroquine usage in United States veterans hospitalized with Covid-19 (MedRXIV)

More deaths, no benefit from malaria drug in VA virus study (Associated Press)

Trump Again Promotes Experimental Drug For Coronavirus Treatment Hydroxychloroquine: ‘What Do I Know, I’m Not A Doctor. But I Have Common Sense.’ (Forbes)

Hydroxychloroquine Abuse Up Since Trump First Mentioned Drug, U.S. Poison Center Data Says (Forbes)

Hydroxychloroquine Use For COVID-19 Coronavirus Shows No Benefit In First Small—But Limited—Controlled Trial (Forbes)

Researchers Warn Possible Coronavirus Treatment Hydroxychloroquine May Be Toxic When Combined With Diabetes Drug (Forbes)

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