US President Donald Trump was, in his typical fashion, blunt at a press briefing on Monday.
He rather proudly told everyone assembled that he was taking a drug, untested for COVID-19, called hydroxychloroquine.
“I’ve been taking it for the last week and a half. A pill every day,” the president said.
This, despite his own government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issuing warnings about the medication.
When I read Trump’s comments I was alarmed. That is because my own experience with a similar anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, was … not good.
The year was 2001. I was due to fly to Morocco to do a story on prisoners and human rights violations. I had a couple of weeks to prepare and, as is standard practice, I visited my GP to get a check up and find out if there were any vaccinations I might need.
As she peered over her reading glasses at me, she opened up a book that she seemed to treat as gospel.
My doctor then decided I needed anti-malarial treatment. Since she was a health professional recommended by several of my then-colleagues who travelled regularly, I was happy to follow her advice.
After a few moments’ pause, she settled on chloroquine.
Chloroquine is the drug from which hydroxychloroquine is derived. They both work in a similar way to treat disease, but hydroxychloroquine has additional molecules added to it, which make it safer to use to minimise the side effects. Both drugs, however, should only be taken on the advice of a trained medical professional as they both have the potential to cause serious harm if not taken under supervision.
My doctor instructed me to take a tablet once a week, every week for two weeks, before entering a malarial zone, and then for eight weeks after.
I was alarmed at the sheer amount of time commitment the drug required, but I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.
Like hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine is an anti-malarial. In 2001 the internet was not as easily available as it is today, and any further research into it needed a library. So I was happy to trust my doctor.
If any side effects make you uncomfortable stop taking it, were her last words to me before I left her consultation room that day. I picked up my prescription from the chemist. I popped my pill.
That, I thought, was that.
It was not.
Within a few hours, I was suffering from nausea and itching. At this stage, I thought it would pass. But the symptoms remained sporadic and would flare up throughout the next couple of weeks.
After I left Morocco, I kept taking the drug as prescribed. Things went further downhill.
I began to suffer from depression and wild dreams. I spoke to others who had taken similar anti-malarial drugs and they described much the same symptoms. In the end, things got so bad with the side effects that I went back to my doctor who recommended I stop taking it.
Clearly, this was my personal experience with the drug, and I may have had specific underlying conditions that contributed to the effect it had on me.
But over the years I have spoken to several travelling reporters about their experiences with anti-malarial drugs like chloroquine. No one seems to have had a great experience. Like many others, I simply do not take them any more, even for the disease they are specifically prescribed for.
When travelling to malaria-prone places, I opt instead for preventative measures to stop me from getting bitten in the first place. (In case you are wondering, my very general advice is: Use Deet spray at dawn and dusk when mosquitos are most active, wear long sleeves, long trousers and avoid stagnant pools of water.)
We are going to be hearing a lot about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in the coming weeks. Both are being trialled to determine whether they could be effective in preventing COVID-19.
But until we learn more from those trials, a world leader publicising drugs untested for COVID-19 seems irresponsible – something many doctors agree with.
But the president has made up his mind. He has become a clinical trial all of his own.
Meanwhile, real clinical trials to test the drugs continue.
“These medicines are being used in the context of the ongoing pandemic for treating patients with COVID-19 and investigated in clinical trials,” the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s equivalent of the FDA, said. “However, clinical data are still very limited and inconclusive and the beneficial effects of these medicines in COVID-19 have not been demonstrated.”
My own experience with chloroquine was hideous, but that was my experience. I will be watching the trials closely. Let us see what science will discover.