A new draft paper from a group of French researchers reports very encouraging results from the malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine, combined with Azithromycin, an antibiotic. 80 coronavirus-positive patients were treated, and all but two of them showed a rapid improvement over a few days.
Unfortunately, the team leader, Didier Raoult, seems to be something of a maverick and doesn’t do science the conventional way. You might expect a double-blind trial to be done, where neither the patients nor the researchers know who’s getting the treatment and who’s getting the placebo. Or at least you’d expect to have a control group. But here, there was no control whatsoever, so we don’t know whether the recovery of the patients was due to the treatment, or if they would have got better anyway. Only 10 of the 80 patients were in the high-risk over-70 age range.
Another paper by the same team was submitted on March 16, accepted on March 17 and published on March 20. By a remarkable coincidence, one of the authors of the paper also happens to be the editor of the International Journal of Microbial Agents that published it. This paper did have a control group but the number of patients was very small and numerous questions have been raised about the work on the pubpeer system, by Elisabeth Bik, Nick Brown and others. Despite the speed in getting the paper out, none of the 18 authors of that paper have attempted to address any of the questions that have been sitting at pubpeer for a week.
A particularly damning article about Raoult and his work has been posted by Leonid Schneider at his Forbetterscience blog. In addition to raising some of the pubpeer issues about the March 20 paper, Schneider reports that some of the many papers Raoult has written in the past appear to have photoshopped or duplicated images. Worse than that, it appears that Raoult may have committed the crime of being sceptical of the climate change scare.
Even more unfortunately, the issue has now been hopelessly politicised, since Donald Trump tweeted the March 20th paper. You can therefore with almost 100% accuracy predict someone’s opinion of the validity of Raoult’s work if you know their opinion of Donald Trump, or vice versa. So it’s no surprise that the Guardian is critical of the use of the drugs, trying to claim that it will mean other people who need them won’t get them.