Authorities misinterpreting COVID-19 trial data with 'disastrous' results, Canadian researchers say.
Influenced by media accounts, scientific oversight boards often don't recognize there are distinct phases to COVID-19 sickness.
When British scientists studying potential treatments for COVID-19 released early results on hydroxychloroquine in June, it was not good news.
For patients sick enough with the coronavirus to be hospitalized, there was no evidence the controversial malaria drug did them any good. The RECOVERY trial found the same for the HIV therapy lopinavir.
The findings had a dramatic effect. Around the world ethics boards and funding bodies ended "dozens if not hundreds" of studies on hydroxychloroquine and lopanivir, says Edward Mills, a Canadian clinical trials expert.
The problem with that, he says, is that many of those other trials were looking at the medicines as a treatment for outpatients in a milder phase of the disease, or as a "prophylaxis" to prevent infection in the first place.
The impact on severely ill patients — what the widely respected U.K. trial examined — was largely irrelevant to their work, says Mills, a McMaster University professor who advises the Gates Foundation on clinical trials.
The episode was typical of what has become a serious problem in the COVID-19 pandemic: misinterpretation of trial data, with "disastrous" results for other studies, Mills and colleagues argue in a recent medical journal commentary ( link ).
Sir Nick White, an Oxford University tropical-medicine professor, confirmed by email that his own planned study of hydroxychloroquine as a preventive was ordered shut down because of the RECOVERY results. ( link )
Prematurely ending trials because of misinterpretation and other factors means it's still unknown whether drugs like hydroxychloroquine could, in fact, be useful as preventives or early in the illness, Mills said.
He traces the problem in part to the unprecedented way science is being communicated during the pandemic.