Despite global scepticism, India distributed over 100 million HCQ tablets for Covid-19

Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Indian government has distributed millions of tablets of a controversial drug as part of its Covid-19 relief programme.

On Feb. 2, the government informed parliament (pdf) that it has distributed 111.6 million pills of hydroxychloroquine or HCQ. The medicine is used for the treatment of autoimmune diseases or malaria.

At the start of the pandemic, in early 2020, there were some global claims that HCQ was effective against coronavirus. However, by mid-2020, research by the World Health Organization (WHO) and several countries had quashed these claims.

On June 19, the WHO stopped HCQ trials and said, “current data shows that this drug does not reduce deaths among hospitalised Covid-19 patients, nor help people with moderate disease.”

In India, however, most states have received HCQ tablets from the central government, according to official data.

The controversial HCQ

In March 2020, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) began a “demonstration study” on the efficacy of HCQ as a preventing drug against coronavirus. The same month, the Narendra Modi government released an advisory for healthcare workers attending to Covid-19 patients and household contacts of confirmed cases to take the medicine.

The tablet was also endorsed by former US president Donald Trump in May as a treatment for Covid-19, despite scant evidence that it actually worked against the virus. In fact, in May, the US imported around 50 million HCQ tablets from India.

On May 22, the Modi government released a second advisory asking frontline workers, including the police and people conducting door-to-door surveys to estimate Covid-19 cases, to take HCQ to prevent infection.

By then, several global medical research bodies had started raising red flags against the use of HCQ for these purposes. ICMR, however, defended the use of the drug saying it showed that HCQ was useful in treating Covid-19. “What we have been doing in India is different from the studies done anywhere else in the world in the sense that we have been checking whether it could work as a prophylactic medicine, whereas everywhere else it was given to positive patients as a treatment option. The results look like favourable in our population,” an ICMR official told national daily Hindustan Times in May defending the use of the medicine in India.

By June, the US, France, and Australia had suspended their clinical trials on the drug’s ability to fight coronavirus, adding to the concerns around it’s safety and efficacy.

Currently, most nations are sceptical about the use as the HCQ in the absence of definitive evidence.

As per a study released by the New England Journal of Medicine on Feb. 4, postexposure therapy with HCQ did not prevent Covid-19 infection. The analysis included 2,314 healthy contacts of 672 patients with Covid-19 who were identified between March 17 and April 28, 2020.