press release
Published: 07 May 2020

Treating Covid-19 with malaria drugs requires caution

By Natasha Meredith

Scientist warns of the risk of repurposing malaria drugs to treat Covid-19 due to the adverse side effects on cardiovascular health.

Illusted x-ray of the human torso with the heart
Getty Images

A correspondence piece in the European Heart Journal Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapy, by Dr Kamalan Jeevaratnam from the University of Surrey analysed the feasibility of using malaria drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, to treat Covid-19.

Examining previous research in this area, Dr Jeevaratnam noted that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine due to their toxicity to the cardiovascular system can have adverse side effects and he urged caution in their use during the current pandemic as both drugs can cause hypotension (low blood pressure). It was also found that the family of drugs that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are apart off are known to cause cardiac rhythm abnormalities, which in mild cases affects the rate or rhythm of heart beats and in severe cases can be fatal.

Observing clinical data released Dr Jeevaratnam found that a large proportion of patients hospitalised for Covid-19 either have an underlying health condition (such as a cardiovascular disease) or are elderly, which has not been taken into consideration in current studies on the use of both drugs in treating Covid-19. One study on the use of chloroquine identified potential risk of tachycardia, a condition were the heart beats significantly faster than normal. It is thought that such a side effect could be dangerous to  elderly Covid-19 patient's with underlying health conditions. For hydroxychloroquine Dr Jeevaratnam identified another study, which although reduced the viral load in Covid-19 patients, did not involve older patients, with those involved having a mean age of 45.1 years. Data from Italy and China, suggest that individuals above 60 years are most affected by the virus.

The article also stress that ‘repurposing’ of drugs is a complicated process and may not be a ‘quick fix.’ Repurposing drugs may require deviation from the approved dosing regimens and prescribing practice in order for them to be tailored to the virus.  Dr Jeevaratnamhighlights that this may give rise to more complex issues, particularly those associated with side effects and toxicity induced by the new dosing regimens.

Dr Kamalan Jeevaratnam from the University of Surrey, said: “The battle to cure Covid-19 is real, but realistic expectations as to the timeline for a cure are needed. Politicians, clinicians, and scientists must be cautious with their claims of identifying a cure, but this should also not limit the ability to explore and test new approaches or drugs. We need to be careful about re purposing existing drugs as the consequences of doing so without proper testing could be devastating to patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.”

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