No major side-effects of HCQ in studies in India: ICMR

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No major side-effects of antimalarial drug Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) have been found in studies in India and its use can be continued in preventive treatment for COVID-19 under strict medical supervision, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said on Tuesday.

The ICMR’s statement came against the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) temporarily suspending the testing of the drug as a potential treatment for COVID-19 over safety concerns.

“The COVID-19 is an evolving field and we do not know which drug is working and which is not working. Lots of drugs are being repurposed for COVID-19, whether for prophylaxis (treatment given or action taken to prevent disease) or for treatment of the disease.

“During these six weeks, we got some data in India, mainly observational studies and some case control studies. We found there were no major side affects except for nausea, vomiting, palpitation occasionally. Hence in our advisory, we’ve recommended that it should be continued for prophylaxis as there is no harm. Benefit may be there,” ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava said at a press briefing here on Tuesday.

He said it has been “clearly advised that HCQ should be taken with food, not on empty stomach”.

“We also emphasized that one ECG should be done during the treatment. We expanded the use of HCQ from healthcare workers to front-line workers also, considering the potential benefits,” he added.

Bhargava said that Chloroquine is a very old antimalarial drug used for nearly 100 years and Hydroxychloroquine is even safer and is widely used for malaria. 

“Taking biological plausibility, in-vitro data and the availability and safety of this drug [HCQ], we had recommended it for use under strict medical supervision,” the ICMR DG told the press conference.

“It was very popular drug suddenly when the American government also started using it and they got fast track approval or emergency use authorisation for it. We also thought that it may be a useful drug for prevention of COVID,” Bhargava said.

He said that risk-benefit studies of the HCQ were conducted at the AIIMS, the ICMR, and also in three public hospitals in Delhi.

“Looking at the risk and benefits we found that we should not deny it to our frontline and healthcare workers dealing with the COVID-19 patients. At the same time we have also said that the use of PPE should be continued,” he stressed.

Referring to an ongoing nationwide ICMR study to assess the efficacy HCQ as a preventive medication against COVID among healthcare personnel in hospitals, Bhargava said the soon-to-be-published findings will also talk about how many of the surveyed people were wearing PPEs, what were the side-effects and how many benefited.