Coronavirus: Trump's favourite COVID-19 medicine hydroxychloroquine back in contention, as concerns raised about prior studies saying it didn't work

A number of studies suggesting hydroxychloroquine wasn't the coronavirus gamechanger US President Donald Trump claimed it would were based on dubious data, a new report has claimed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has resumed trials it halted in response to the those studies, which suggested COVID-19 patients on the drug had worse outcomes than those undergoing other treatments.

The data behind the studies, which were published in prestigious journals including The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) was supplied by a mysterious US-based company named Surgisphere, The Guardian reports.

Surgisphere has little online footprint, its founder has been named in a number of malpractice suits and once claimed to have invented a wearable device that "allows you to learn faster, perform better, and think smarter" (which never ended up being released), and its employees appear to have little to no scientific background, the paper said - one being a science fiction writer and another "adult model and events hostess". 

The company claims to have access to data from more than 1000 hospitals around the world, tracking outcomes for coronavirus patients. 

Concerns were raised when it emerged a study published in The Lancet in late May was based on incorrect death tolls reported by Australian hospitals, some of which said they'd never heard of Surgisphere, let alone have a data-sharing arrangement with the company. 

That study - which had been peer-reviewed - claimed patients treated with hydroxychloroquine were more likely to die than others. 

Both The Lancet and the NEJM have since issued "expression of concern" notices about the studies they published, the NEMJ asking the authors "to provide evidence that the data are reliable". 

Experts The Guardian spoke to said Surgisphere was "almost certainly a scam" and the studies were "to draw attention to his firm" and claimed to have collected data that no hospital "could realistically do".

Surgisphere boss Sapan Desai - who co-authored both papers - denied the claims, saying his detractors had a "fundamental misunderstanding about what our system is and how it works".

WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Photo credit: Reuters

WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week its hydroxychloroquine trials would now resume. 

"As of now there's no evidence that any drug actually reduces the mortality in patients who have COVID-19 and in fact it's an urgent priority for all of us to do the needed studies, to do the randomised clinical trials in order to get that evidence as quickly as possible... We owe it to the patients to have definitive answers on whether or not a drug works or doesn't work."

But the evidence that hydroxychloroquine, usually used to treat malaria, works on COVID-19 remains scant. A new study on the drug - published this week in the NEMJ - found it was no better than a placebo at preventing close contacts of confirmed cases from contracting the disease.

Trump has claimed to be taking the drug in pill form as a preventative measure, despite no evidence it works in this way.

Unlike Dr Desai's research, this study was what's known as a "randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial". Rather than look at existing data and try to account for inconsistencies, the researchers enrolled hundreds of people who feared they might have been exposed to the virus. Half got a placebo and half got hydroxychloroquine - without knowing which they had. 

While slightly fewer of those on hydroxychloroquine ended up contracting the illness, the researchers said the difference was statistically insignificant. 

"This randomised trial did not demonstrate a significant benefit of hydroxychloroquine as post-exposure prophylaxis for COVID-19," the researchers said. 

But crucially for Trump, it didn't disprove whether taking it before any suspected exposure could prevent an infection taking hold.

"Whether pre-exposure prophylaxis would be effective in high-risk populations is a separate question, with trials ongoing. In order to end the pandemic, a reduction in community transmission is needed."