The response to the COVID-19 pandemic will soon become the responsibility of President-elect Biden. As is clear to anyone who honestly looks, the past 10+ months of this pandemic have been a disastrous litany of mistakes, wrong actions, and misinformation.
The result has been the deaths of 240,000 Americans, economic collapse, disruption of routine healthcare, and inability of Americans to pursue their values without fear of contracting or spreading a deadly infectious disease. With the looming change in administration, many proposals will be suggested for the path forward.
Indeed, the Biden campaign published their own plan. This plan encompasses many of the actions my colleagues and I in the public health and infectious disease fields have been arguing for since January. Several of these points, I think, bear emphasis and should be aggressively pursued to help the U.S. emerge from the pandemic.
Support More and Faster Tests<p>When it comes to an infectious disease outbreak the most basic question that must be answered in any response is: "Who is infected and who is not?" Even today this simple question is not easy to answer because testing issues continue to plague us and there are voices who oppose more testing -- as if by not testing, the cases of COVID cease to exist. While testing is worlds better than it was in March – especially for hospital inpatients – it is still a process fraught with unnecessary bureaucracy and delays in the outpatient setting. </p><p>Just this past week, friends and colleagues have had to wait days upon days to get a result back, all the while having to self-quarantine pending the result. This not only leaves people in limbo, it discourages people from being tested, and renders contact tracing almost moot. A test that results in several days is almost useless to contact tracers as <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/29/health/bill-gates-testing-trnd/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Bill Gates has forcefully argued</u></a>. <br></p>
Roll Out Safe and Effective Vaccine(s)<p>Biden's plan also identifies the need to "accelerate the development of treatments and vaccines" and indeed Operation Warp Speed has been one solitary bright spot in the darkness of the failed pandemic response. It is this program that facilitated a distribution partnership with Pfizer for 100 million doses of its mRNA vaccine -- whose preliminary, and extremely positive data, was just <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/09/health/covid-vaccine-pfizer.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>announced</u></a> today to great excitement.<br></p><p>Operation Warp Speed needs to be continued so that we can ensure the final development and distribution of the first-generation vaccines and treatments. When a vaccine is available, it will be a Herculean task that will span many months to actually get into the arms (twice as a 2-dose vaccine) of Americans. Vaccination may begin for healthcare workers before a change in administration, but it will continue long into 2021 and possibly longer. Vaccine distribution will be a task that demands a high degree of competence and coordination, especially with the extreme cold storage conditions needed for the vaccines.</p>
Anticipate the Next Pandemic Now<p>Not only should Operation Warp Speed be supported, it needs to be expanded. For too long pandemic preparedness has been reactive and it is long past time to approach the development of medical countermeasures for pandemic threats in a proactive fashion.<br></p><p>What we do for other national security threats should be the paradigm for infectious disease threats that too often are subject to a mind-boggling cycle of panic and neglect. There are an estimated 200 outbreaks of viral diseases per year. Luckily and because of hard work, for many of them we have tools at our hands to control them, but for the unknown 201<sup>st</sup> virus outbreak we do not –as we've seen this year. And, the next unknown virus will likely appear soon. A new program must be constructed guaranteeing that we will never again be caught blindsided and flatfooted as we have been with the COVID-19 pandemic. </p><p>A new dedicated "Virus 201" strategy, program, and funding must be created to achieve this goal. This initiative should be a specific program focused on unknown threats that emanate from identified classes of pathogens that possess certain pandemic-causing characteristics. For example, such a program could leverage new powerful vaccine platform technologies to begin development on vaccine candidates for a variety of viral families before they emerge as full-fledged threats. Imagine how different our world would be today if this action was taken after SARS in 2003 or even MERS in 2012.</p>
Resurrect Expertise<p>One of the most disheartening aspects of the pandemic has been the denigration and outright attacks on experts in infectious disease. Such disgusting attacks were not for any flaws, incompetence, or weakness but for their opposite -- strength and competence – and emanated from a desire to evade the grim reality. Such nihilism must end and indeed the Biden plan contains several crucial remedies, including the restoration of the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, a crucial body of experts at the White House that the Trump administration bafflingly eliminated in 2018.<br></p><p>Additionally, Biden should remove the handcuffs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and allow its experts to coordinate the national response and to issue guidance in the manner they were constituted to do without fear of political reprisal.</p>
Shore Up Hospital Capacity<p>For the foreseeable future, as control of the virus slips away in certain parts of the country, hospital capacity will be the paramount concern. Unlike many other industries, the healthcare sector is severely constrained in its ability to expand capacity because of regulatory and financial considerations. Hospital emergency preparedness has never been prioritized and until we can substantially curtail the spread of this virus, hospitals must remain vigilant.<br></p><p>We have seen how suspensions of "elective" procedures led to alarming declines in vital healthcare services that range from childhood immunization to cancer chemotherapy to psychiatric care. This cannot be allowed to happen again. Hospitals will need support in terms of staffing, alternative care sites, and personal protective equipment. Reflecting these concerns, the Biden plan outlines an approach that smartly uses the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs assets and medical reserve corps, coupled to the now-flourishing telemedicine innovations, to augment capacity and forestall the need for hospitals to shift to crisis standards of care.</p><p>To these five tasks, I would add a long list of subtasks that need to be executed by agencies such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, and many other arms of government. But, to me, these are the most crucial. </p><p>***</p><p>As COVID-19 has demonstrated, new deadly viruses can spread quickly and easily around the globe, causing significant loss of life and economic ruin. With nearly 200 epidemics occurring each year, the next fast-moving, novel infectious disease pandemic could be right around the corner. </p><p>The upcoming transition affords the opportunity to implement a new paradigm in pandemic response, biosecurity, and emerging disease response. The United States and President-elect Biden must work hard to to end this pandemic and increase the resilience of the United States to the future infectious disease threats we will surely face.</p>
In the early days of a pandemic caused by a virus with no existing treatments, many different compounds are often considered and tried in an attempt to help patients.
It all relates back to a profound question: How do we know what we know?
Many of these treatments fall by the wayside as evidence accumulates regarding actual efficacy. At that point, other treatments become standard of care once their benefit is proven in rigorously designed trials.
However, about seven months into the pandemic, we're still seeing political resurrection of a treatment that has been systematically studied and demonstrated in well-designed randomized controlled trials to not have benefit.
The hydroxychloroquine (and by extension chloroquine) story is a complicated one that was difficult to follow even before it became infused with politics. It is a simple fact that these drugs, long approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), work in Petri dishes against various viruses including coronaviruses. This set of facts provided biological plausibility to support formally studying their use in the clinical treatment and prevention of COVID-19. As evidence from these studies accumulates, it is a cognitive requirement to integrate that knowledge and not to evade it. This also means evaluating the rigor of the studies.
In recent days we have seen groups yet again promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine in, what is to me, a baffling disregard of the multiple recent studies that have shown no benefit. Indeed, though FDA-approved for other indications like autoimmune conditions and preventing malaria, the emergency use authorization for COVID-19 has been rescinded (which means the government cannot stockpile it). Still, however, many patients continue to ask for the drug, compelled by political commentary, viral videos, and anecdotal data. Yet most doctors (like myself) are refusing to write the prescriptions outside of a clinical trial – a position endorsed by professional medical organizations such as the American College of Physicians and the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Why this disconnect?
It all relates back to a profound question: How do we know what we know? In science, we use the scientific method – the process of observing reality, coming up with a hypothesis about what might be true, and testing that hypothesis as thoroughly as possible until we discover the objective truth.
The confusion we're seeing now stems from an inability to distinguish between anecdotes reported by physicians (observational data) and an actual evidence base. This is understandable among the general public but when done by a healthcare professional, it reveals a disdain for reason, logic, and the scientific method.
The Difference Between Observational Data and Randomized Controlled Trials
The power of informal observation is crucial. It is part of the scientific method but primarily as a basis for generating hypotheses that we can test. How do we conduct medical tests? The gold standard is the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. This means that neither the researchers nor the volunteers know who is getting a drug and who is getting a sugar pill. Then both groups of the trial, called arms, can be compared to determine whether the people who got the drug fared better. This study design prevents biases and the placebo effect from confounding the data and undermining the veracity of the results.
For example, a seemingly beneficial effect might be seen in an observational study with no blinding and no control group. In such a case, all patients are openly given the drug and their doctors observe how they do. A prime example is the 36-patient single-arm study from France that generated a tremendous amount of interest after President Trump tweeted about it. But this kind of a study by its nature cannot answer the critical question: Was the positive effect because of hydroxychloroquine or just the natural course of the illness? In other words, would someone have recovered in a similar fashion regardless of the drug? What is the role of the placebo effect?
These are reasons why it is crucial to give a placebo to a control group that is as similar in every respect as possible to those receiving the intervention. Then we attempt to find out by comparing the two groups: What is the side effect profile of the drug? Are the groups large enough to detect a relatively rare safety concern? How long were the patients followed for? Was something else responsible for making the patients get better, such as the use of steroids (as likely was the case in the Henry Ford study)?
Looking at the two major hydroxychloroquine trials, it is apparent that, when studied using the best tools of clinical trials, no benefit is likely to occur.
All of these considerations amount to just a fraction of the questions that can be answered more definitively in a well-designed large randomized controlled trial than in observational studies. Indeed, an observational study from New York failed to show any benefit in hospitalized patients, showing how unclear and disparate the results can be with these types of studies. A New York retrospective study (which examined patient outcomes after they were already treated) had similar results and included the use of azithromycin.
When evaluating a study, it is also important to note whether conflicts of interest exist, as well as the quality of the peer review and the data itself. In the case of the French study, for example, the paper was published in a journal in which one of the authors was editor-in-chief, and it was accepted for publication after 24 hours. Patients who fared poorly on hydroxychloroquine were also left out of the study altogether, skewing the results.
What Randomized Controlled Trials Have Shown
Looking at the two major hydroxychloroquine trials, it is apparent that, when studied using the best tools of clinical trials, no benefit is likely to occur. The most important of these studies to announce results was part of the Recovery trial, which was designed to test multiple interventions in the treatment of COVID-19. This trial, which has yet to be formally published, was a randomized controlled trial that involved over 1500 hospitalized patients being administered hydroxychloroquine compared to over 3000 who did not receive the medication. Clinical testing requires large numbers of patients to have the power to demonstrate statistical significance -- the threshold at which any apparent benefit is more than you would expect by random chance alone.
In this study, hydroxychloroquine provided no mortality benefit or even a benefit in hospital length of stay. In fact, the opposite occurred. Hydroxychloroquine patients were more likely to stay in the hospital longer and were more likely to require mechanical ventilation. Additionally, smaller randomized trials conducted in China have not shown benefit either.
Another major study involved the use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent illness in people who were exposed to COVID-19. These results, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, included over 800 patients who were studied in a randomized double-blind controlled trial and also failed to show any benefit.
But what about adding the antibiotic azithromycin in conjunction with hydroxychloroquine? A three-arm randomized controlled study involving over 500 patients hospitalized with mild to moderate COVID-19 was conducted. Its results, also published in The New England Journal of Medicine, failed to show any benefit – with or without azithromycin – and demonstrated evidence of harm. Those who received these treatments had elevations of their liver function tests and heart rhythm abnormalities. These findings hold despite the retraction of an observational study showing similar results.
Additionally, when used in combination with remdesivir – an experimental antiviral – hydroxychloroquine has been shown to be associated with worse outcomes and more side effects.
But what about in mildly ill patients not requiring hospitalization? There was no benefit found in a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 400 patients, the majority of whom were given the drug within one day of symptoms.
Some randomized controlled studies have yet to report their findings on hydroxychloroquine in non-hospitalized patients, with the use of zinc (which has some evidence in the treatment of the common cold, another ailment that can be caused by coronaviruses). And studies have yet to come out regarding whether hydroxychloroquine can prevent people from getting sick before they are even exposed. But the preponderance of the evidence from studies designed specifically to find benefit for treating COVID-19 does not support its use outside of a research setting.
Today – even with some studies (including those with zinc) still ongoing – if a patient asked me to prescribe them hydroxychloroquine for any severity or stage of illness, with or without zinc, with or without azithromycin, I would refrain. I would explain that, based on the evidence from clinical trials that has been amassed, there is no reason to believe that it will alter the course of illness for the better.
Failing to recognize the reality of the situation runs the risk of crowding out other more promising treatments and creating animosity where none should exist.
What has been occurring is a continual shifting of goalposts with each negative hydroxychloroquine study. Those in favor of the drug protest that a trial did not include azithromycin or zinc or wasn't given at the right time to the right patients. While there may be biological plausibility to treating illness early or combining treatments with zinc, it can only be definitively shown in a randomized, controlled prospective study.
The bottom line: A study that only looks at past outcomes in one group of patients – even when well conducted – is at most hypothesis generating and cannot be used as the sole basis for a new treatment paradigm.
Some may argue that there is no time to wait for definitive studies, but no treatment is benign. The risk/benefit ratio is not the same for every possible use of the drug. For example, hydroxychloroquine has a long record of use in rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus (whose patients are facing shortages because of COVID-19 related demand). But the risk of side effects for many of these patients is worth taking because of the substantial benefit the drug provides in treating those conditions.
In COVID-19, however, the disease apparently causes cardiac abnormalities in a great deal of many mild cases, a situation that should prompt caution when using any drugs that have known effects on the cardiac system -- drugs like hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.
My Own Experience
It is not the case that every physician was biased against this drug from the start. Indeed, most of us wanted it to be shown to be beneficial, as it was a generic drug that was widely available and very familiar. In fact, early in the pandemic I prescribed it to hospitalized patients on two occasions per a hospital protocol. However, it is impossible for me as a sole clinician to know whether it worked, was neutral, or was harmful. In recent days, however, I have found the hydroxychloroquine talk to have polluted the atmosphere. One recent patient was initially refusing remdesivir, a drug proven in large randomized trials to have effectiveness, because he had confused it with hydroxychloroquine.
Moving On to Other COVID Treatments: What a Treatment Should Do
The story of hydroxychloroquine illustrates a fruitless search for what we are actually looking for in a COVID-19 treatment. In short, we are looking for a medication that can decrease symptoms, decrease complications, hasten recovery, decrease hospitalizations, decrease contagiousness, decrease deaths, and prevent infection. While it is unlikely to find a single antiviral that can accomplish all of these, fulfilling even just one is important.
For example, remdesivir hastens recovery and dexamethasone decreases mortality. Definitive results of the use of convalescent plasma and immunomodulating drugs such as siltuxamab, baricitinib, and anakinra (for use in the cytokine storms characteristic of severe disease) are still pending, as are the trials with monoclonal antibodies.
While it was crucial that the medical and scientific community definitively answer the questions surrounding the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19, it is time to face the facts and accept that its use for the treatment of this disease is not likely to be beneficial. Failing to recognize the reality of the situation runs the risk of crowding out other more promising treatments and creating animosity where none should exist.