LONDON - British health care workers will on Thursday begin taking part in a University of Oxford-led international trial of 2 anti-malarial drugs to see if they can prevent COVID-19, including one US President Donald Trump says he has been taking.
The "COPCOV" study will involve more than 40,000 frontline health care workers from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America to determine if chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are effective in preventing the novel coronavirus.
Demand for hydroxychloroquine surged after Trump touted it in early April. Earlier this week, the US leader said he was now taking the drug as a preventive medicine against the virus despite medical warnings about its use.
The trial, led by the University of Oxford with the support of the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok, will open to British participants at hospital sites in Brighton and Oxford on Thursday and involve those who are in close contact with patients with proven or suspected COVID-19.
"We really do not know if chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine are beneficial or harmful against COVID-19," said the University of Oxford's Professor Nicholas White, the study's co-principal investigator, who is based at MORU.
"The best way to find out if they are effective in preventing COVID-19 is in a randomized clinical trial."
The COPCOV team said laboratory evidence showed the anti-malarial drugs might be effective in preventing or treating COVID-19 but there was no conclusive proof.
US regulators have authorized the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients, but the US Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use of it in COVID-19 patients outside of the hospital or clinical trials due to the risk of serious heart rhythm problems.
"These trials will give us the best understanding of how safe and effective these drugs might be across different populations and age groups," said Nick Cammack, COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Lead at the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based medical research charity which is helping to fund the trial.
"If, and only if, they are effective, these drugs can be scaled up and rolled out quickly across the world."
In Britain, Europe and Africa participants will receive either hydroxychloroquine or a placebo for 3 months. In Asia, they will receive either chloroquine or a placebo.
A total of 25 study sites are expected to open in the UK by the end of June, MORU said, with plans for further sites in Thailand and Southeast Asia, Italy, Portugal, Africa and South America. The results are expected by the end of this year.
"We are looking at this with great care and examining all of the evidence that is out there," Britain's security minister James Brokenshire told Sky News.