Manitoba scientists examining potential of yet-unproven COVID-19 treatment with controversial drug

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML

Despite a warning from Health Canada that it’s a dangerous drug to take without medical supervision, hydroxychloroquine — which is typically used to treat malaria and some auto-immune diseases — is still being touted by some as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

It’s still unknown whether the drug, which U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday he was taking as a preventative measure, is effective against the novel coronavirus, says a local expert.

Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, with the University of Manitoba’s department of medical microbiology, told 680 CJOB it’s too soon to tell whether hydroxychloroquine will have an impact on COVID-19 in humans.

Jason Kindrachuk is the Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses, University of Manitoba.
Jason Kindrachuk is the Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses, University of Manitoba. Provided

“If you were to try and put two lists side by side about what we know about hydroxychloroquine in regards to COVID-19 and what we don’t, the lists would be amazingly disparate from one another,” he said.

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“We still don’t know really anything about hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19. There is some data from what we call in vitro experiments — which basically means we’re just looking at cells in isolation in the laboratory — that shows hydroxychloroquine is able to essentially slow down or stop the ability of the virus to create copies of itself.

“But when we go into human trials, pick a day of the week, and there’s probably a new piece of data coming out that is completely in contrast to something that was published two days before. We’re still an area that we don’t know what its effectiveness is, if any.”

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Kindrachuk said side effects related to the drug can include dizziness, nausea, and general lethargy — and while medical professionals haven’t seen a lot of concerns about toxicity, it can happen.

In cases of ovderose, the drug can cause multi-organ failure as well as vision issues.

People with co-morbidity — including old age, high blood pressure, high BMI, or obesity — or who have underlying health issues are at greater risk of side effects occurring.

“There are reliable concerns for what could happen in the general public if someone started taking this drug without any insight from a supervising physician.”

READ MORE: Manitoba’s next phase of COVID-19 reopening could happen sooner than expected: health officials

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While drug trials are happening around the world to find a solution to the coronavirus crisis, a large hydroxychloroquine study is taking place right here in Manitoba.

Click to play video: 'University of Manitoba undertaking clinical trials of possible COVID-19 treatment drug'
University of Manitoba undertaking clinical trials of possible COVID-19 treatment drug

Research Manitoba’s Tracey Maconachie, also the president of Bioscience Association Manitoba, told 680 CJOB the province is hosting two trials around the potential use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19.

“They’re both larger studies,” she said. “Some of the studies that have taken place so far have been small — say 100 people, 150 people. The studies that are being looked at now will be larger. They’ll be up to 3,000 people.

“Those studies will look at preventing the disease in patients who have been exposed but may not have symptoms, as well as early treatment for patients who aren’t in hospital.”

Maconachie said the trials are happening at ‘record-breaking speeds’, but they still take time if they’re to be done properly.

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“As fast as these are happening,” she said, “it still takes time. It also takes time to recruit patients.

“Because of the urgency around COVID, we are starting to see some data released early, in what we call pre-print, before it’s been published. In this case, we’re even before that. We don’t have the data yet to even communicate that.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Manitoba’s top doctor says ‘only reason’ to use hydroxychloroquine is in a clinical trial'
Coronavirus outbreak: Manitoba’s top doctor says ‘only reason’ to use hydroxychloroquine is in a clinical trial
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