Hydroxychloroquine has been in the news lately, touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19. But what is it, and does it really work?

Professor Brian Dixon, an expert in immunology, answers some frequently asked questions about the drug.

What is hydroxychloroquine and what is it used to treat under normal circumstances?

Chloroquine and variants of it are drugs that have been (and still are) widely used for treating malaria, as it inhibits parasite replication. But it has lots of side effects that might be worse than the benefits.

Variants of this drug can make you very depressed, with hallucinations in some cases. It is not recommended for those with existing heart problems as it can cause heart issues. For malaria, you need a large dose and it has to reach through your bloodstream to the whole of your body, increasing the likelihood of some nasty side effects.

Can hydroxychloroquine treat COVID-19 effectively?

There is not enough peer-reviewed evidence that this drug works to control COVID-19. It has worked in lab conditions with cells in culture, but it has not really been tested in humans or animals. So we don’t really know if its effective for treating COVID-19 in humans or not. During this crisis it has been used if all else fails, but the results of these treatments are mixed.

Can this drug replace the need for a vaccine, or speed up the process of creating a vaccine?

It will not replace a vaccine or speed production of a vaccine. At best it will slow the virus down so the patients natural immunity could clear the virus, and that’s only if it works in humans, which we don’t know yet.

The University of Waterloo has a number of experts available for comment on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here to see the up-to-date list.

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