Not Real News

On Friday, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, when used with the antibiotic azithromycin, can improve survival by nearly 200% when given to COVID-19 patients on ventilators. Experts say the small study that this claim is based on proves nothing, and that enough evidence now exists from well-run studies to indicate that hydroxychloroquine is not effective for treating COVID-19.

THE FACTS: Experts say the small study that this claim is based on proves nothing, and that enough evidence now exists from well-run studies to indicate that hydroxychloroquine is not effective for treating COVID-19.

The study in question is being misrepresented online to falsely suggest that top health officials were wrong when they found that hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria, had no benefit as a COVID-19 treatment. The observational study, which has not been vetted by independent scientists, gained attention on social media after it was posted on May 31 to Medrxiv, a website that displays medical papers that have not been published.

Posts online, many from supporters of former President Donald Trump, claimed the study shows that health officials and media were wrong to discount the benefits of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19, which Trump had championed. Several health professionals told The Associated Press that using the new study to tout the benefits of hydroxychloroquine is misleading.

“This is a very small study from a single hospital that was observational only,” said Dr. Jaimie Meyer, infectious disease physician at Yale School of Medicine. “The answer to COVID is vaccination, not hydroxychloroquine.”

Randomized double-blind studies are the gold standard in medical research. In such studies, patients are not told whether they are receiving the drug being tested or a placebo. They allow for even distribution across groups and take into account potential differences among subjects that researchers may not have anticipated.

In an observational study, like the one being touted in the false posts, researchers simply observe patients without randomizing who gets what treatment. These studies are susceptible to bias and cannot prove cause and effect, Meyer said. The study cited in the false posts examined 255 COVID-19 patients on ventilators starting on May 1, 2020. It was conducted by the Smith Center for Infectious Diseases & Urban Health in East Orange, New Jersey, which is run by Dr. Stephen M. Smith, an early proponent of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.

The study offers no information on how it was funded and the center did not respond to an AP request for comment. The study itself notes that it should not be used to guide clinical practice. Hydroxychloroquine has since been tested on thousands of COVID-19 patients. Data from randomized studies has shown the drug is not effective for treating the disease — alone or with other drugs like azithromycin. These included major studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association.