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Hydroxychloroquine Debate Interferes With Recruiting Research Volunteers

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump surprised a lot of people this week when he said he's taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine. It's not risk-free, although doctors have been using it for decades. The question is, does it help with COVID-19? That requires more study. But all this debate over the drug, all the headlines, that's actually made it harder for some scientists to do the research. Here's reporter Will Stone.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Dr. Jon Giles didn't expect to have problems drumming up interest in his clinical trial for hydroxychloroquine. Giles is at Columbia University. And he was all set to start enrolling patients at the end of April but ran into a problem.

JON GILES: Pretty much everybody said, well, that's the drug that is dangerous to your heart, or I talked to friends and they said don't take it, or I saw it on TV that it was dangerous.

STONE: Weeks earlier, people were clamoring to enroll. But the news changed. One study of hospitalized veterans found the drug did not reduce the need for a ventilator. It even linked hydroxychloroquine to higher death rates. But that wasn't a rigorous controlled trial, and the results hadn't been peer-reviewed. Then more news - the FDA issued a warning about using the drug for COVID-19 patients.

GILES: It became almost impossible to get anyone interested.

STONE: Giles had wanted to study its protective potential, giving it to people after someone in their household tested positive. And he's comfortable with hydroxychloroquine. As a rheumatologist, he prescribes it to patients with lupus and arthritis.

GILES: It's a very, very safe drug. It's been used for over 75 years.

STONE: Giles eventually gave up on doing his study. Other scientists have had similar problems. Dr. Christine Johnston is at the University of Washington, where there are several clinical trials.

CHRISTINE JOHNSTON: We're hearing now from some participants that the study and the drugs feel too political, and they just don't want to participate at all.

STONE: The controversy even set back recruitment for a Detroit-based study by a month. At the Henry Ford Health System, Dr. William O'Neill is researching whether hydroxychloroquine can be used to prevent infection among health care workers.

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Everything that we see about hydroxychloroquine suggests that the earlier you use the drug, the more likely it is to be effective.

STONE: And that's a very different question, he says, than whether the drug works for people who are seriously ill or on a ventilator. But he feels that important distinction is getting lost. O'Neill says the fact that President Trump is touting this drug means some people are now invested in the idea that hydroxychloroquine won't work.

O'NEILL: And the problem with that is this is not politics; this is life and death. We're talking about a treatment. Who would be rooting for us not to find the therapy, for God's sakes?

STONE: O'Neill says it's good to study hydroxychloroquine because it has such a long track record. At Vanderbilt, Dr. Wesley Self is studying the drug in sick, hospitalized COVID patients. He gets that the country is sort of on an emotional roller coaster when it comes to this drug.

WESLEY SELF: This is a perfect situation for a clinical trial, to really understand what the balance of those benefits and risks are.

STONE: At Duke University in North Carolina, Dr. Susanna Naggie is studying hydroxychloroquine as a way to prevent infection in health care workers.

SUSANNA NAGGIE: I do worry that there are many well-controlled trials that are underway where we won't get an answer. And that would be, I think, a shame, to be honest with you.

STONE: Naggie says the best thing we can do right now is try to get some clear answers, and that takes time.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "IT'S ONLY WORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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