LONDON (Reuters)—On May 21, British healthcare workers began taking part in a University of Oxford-led international trial of two anti-malarial drugs to see if they can prevent COVID-19, including one U.S. President Donald Trump says he has been taking.
The COPCOV study will involve more than 40,000 frontline healthcare workers from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America to determine if chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) are effective in preventing the novel coronavirus.
Demand for HCQ surged after Trump touted it in early April. Earlier last week the U.S. leader said he was now taking the drug as a preventive medicine against the virus despite medical warnings about its use.
The trial, led by the University of Oxford with the support of the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok, will open to British participants at hospital sites in Brighton and Oxford on Thursday and involve those who are in close contact with patients with proven or suspected COVID-19.
“We really do not know if chloroquine or HCQ are beneficial or harmful against COVID-19,” says the University of Oxford’s Prof. Nicholas White, the study’s co-principal investigator, who is based at MORU.
“The best way to find out if they are effective in preventing COVID-19 is in a randomised clinical trial.”
The COPCOV team said laboratory evidence showed the anti-malarial drugs might be effective in preventing or treating COVID-19 but there was no conclusive proof.
U.S. regulators have authorized the emergency use of HCQ for coronavirus patients, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use of it in COVID-19 patients outside of the hospital or clinical trials due to the risk of serious heart rhythm problems.
“These trials will give us the best understanding of how safe and effective these drugs might be across different populations and age groups,” says Nick Cammack, COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Lead at the Wellcome Trust, a U.K.-based medical research charity which is helping to fund the trial.
“If, and only if, they are effective, these drugs can be scaled up and rolled out quickly across the world.”
In Britain, Europe and Africa, participants will receive either HCQ or a placebo for three months. In Asia, they will receive either chloroquine or a placebo.
A total of 25 study sites are expected to be open in the U.K. by the end of June, MORU said, with plans for further sites in Thailand and Southeast Asia, Italy, Portugal, Africa and South America. The results are expected by the end of this year.