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Chloroquine and azithromycin combo doesn’t cure Covid-19, may be dangerous

A message widely shared on Facebook in South Africa claims a combination of chloroquine sulphate, azithromycin and zinc dramatically improved a Covid-19 patient’s symptoms.

It includes a photo of two small plastic packets and a box. One of the packets is labelled “Chloroquine Sulphate”, and the other is apparently a zinc supplement. The box is labelled “Azithromycin (500mg)”.

The photo’s caption describes “someone’s testimony” about “Covid medication”. It reads, in Afrikaans: “My skoonma het so rukkie terug covid gehad. Sy was dodelik siek, sy het toe hierdie pille gedrink, binne 2 dae was sy amper gesond. Dit is die pille wat Donald Trump van praat. Regtig ek kon nie glo dat iemand wat so siek van covid binne 48 uur so groot beterskap gehad het nie.”

This roughly translates as: “My mother-in-law had Covid recently. She was deathly ill, she then took these pills, within two days she was almost healthy. It's the pills Donald Trump talks about. I truly can't believe that someone who was so sick with Covid could improve so much within 48 hours.”

The message was originally posted in August 2020, but is being shared again as South Africa experiences a second wave of Covid-19. As of 7 January, more than 31,000 people in the country had died from the virus. 

The post doesn’t directly tell readers to take the cocktail of drugs. But could this combination of drugs cause rapid recoveries from Covid-19?

Trumpeting unproven cures

The drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine made headlines in the early months of the pandemic, largely because US president Donald Trump falsely touted hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” for the virus.  

In May 2020 Trump claimed he was taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off Covid-19. In October he contracted the virus

Chloroquine sulphate is a sulphate salt of chloroquine. Chloroquine is used to treat malaria and hydroxychloroquine is mostly used to treat the chronic autoimmune disease lupus

Azithromycin is a commonly prescribed antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections such as middle-ear infections, strep throat and pneumonia. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses – like the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – but can be used to treat secondary bacterial infections in patients with the coronavirus.

Health agencies advise against combination of drugs

While a very small early study indicated that a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin might treat Covid-19, later studies foundno beneficial effect of hydroxychloroquine in patients hospitalised with Covid-19”. 

In July 2020 the US Food and Drug Administration revoked the emergency use authorisation of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 because “results from a large, randomised clinical trial in hospitalized patients ... found these medicines showed no benefit for decreasing the likelihood of death or speeding recovery”. 

The World Health Organization also cautions against the use of hydroxychloroquine as it “has not been shown to offer any benefit for treatment of Covid-19” and “does not recommend self-medication with any medicines, including antibiotics, as a prevention or cure for Covid-19”. 

Antibiotics don’t treat viral infections

In August 2020 South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases also recommended against using chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat patients with Covid-19. The NICD also makes clear in its Covid-19 guidelines that “antibiotics do not treat viral infections”.  

In September the results of a large-scale study in Brazil found: “For patients with Covid-19, the addition of azithromycin to existing standard of care regimens does not appear to improve outcomes.”  

In December British scientists concluded, based on preliminary analysis of data from the UK’s Recovery trial, that the drug had “been found to have no meaningful clinical benefit for patients hospitalised with severe forms of the disease”. 

Verdict also still out on zinc

Zinc, an important trace element or micronutrient, has been widely touted as helping both prevent and cure Covid-19. While there is some evidence zinc helps your body fight a cold, according to the US’s National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, “scientists don’t know if it helps ease Covid-19 symptoms”. 

The National Institutes of Health are likewise hesitant about zinc’s preventative properties and “recommend against using zinc supplementation above the recommended dietary allowance for the prevention of Covid-19, except in a clinical trial”. 

There is no compelling evidence that the combination of drugs in the photo shared on Facebook cures people of Covid-19. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine can have serious side effects, antibiotics have no effect on a viral infection, and the benefits of zinc supplementation are unproven. 

Perhaps someone’s mother-in-law did make a rapid recovery while taking this particular combination of medicines. But correlation does not imply causation. As has been shown many times, one event following another event does not mean the former lead to the latter.  

Taking health advice from anonymous, unqualified sources on the internet can be dangerous. Instead, consult your doctor or trustworthy official resources

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