Hype and harm? The COVID-19 treatment that may be ineffective and dangerous

I remember being shocked when I heard back in mid-March that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had COVID-19. Things were just really starting to heat up with the virus in the U.S. and there still wasn’t anyone I knew (personally or celebrities) that had it. Rita Wilson gave an interview recently with Gayle King from CBS to talk about her experience, and she mentioned that she’d been treated with the malaria drug chloroquine. In a time when the medical community is desperate for COVID-19 treatments, they’ve been turning to antimalarial drugs like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine frequently. But are these drugs safe and effective? According to Rita Wilson, her experience with chloroquine wasn’t positive…

Her fever did break after taking it (although, she’s not sure that was due to chloroquine or just timing), but she also experienced a wide range of side effects. She got vertigo and became nauseous. Her muscles became weak and she couldn’t walk. And all that was on top of the symptoms she was dealing with from COVID-19.

Clearly, Rita had an awful experience. But those side effects could be worth it if these drugs improved the odds of making it on the other side of this virus unscathed. Unfortunately, new research shows that’s probably not the case. And these drugs may have even more side effects than the ones Rita experienced…

Anti-malarial drugs and dangerous heart problems

A recent study published in a French medical journal shows that hydroxychloroquine does not help the immune system tackle COVID-19 more effectively as previously believed.

It was a small study that included 10 people. Researchers swabbed their nose and throat several times over the course of their illness to see how much of the virus was still present. There wasn’t any significant difference in viral load between people who took the malaria drug and people who didn’t. People who took the drug didn’t have better clinical outcomes either… they stayed in the hospital just as long, had a fever just as long, etc.

Now, there have been a couple of other studies that show the combination of hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin does have some benefits for people who don’t have severe symptoms. But there are several other studies that show hydroxychloroquine is not helpful for COVID-19 specifically and viruses in general.

Related: 6 small things to do each day to avoid coronavirus

And then there’s the whole side effect issue…

Anti-malarial drugs come with potentially serious side effects. I mentioned some of the side effects already. But a new study shows that they could be even more dangerous than the nausea and vertigo Rita experienced.

A recent Brazilian study had to stop early because chloroquine was causing dangerous heart rhythm problems in people taking high doses. The study was designed to see if chloroquine was a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19. But just days into taking high doses of the drug, people developed concerning heart rhythm problems. A few even died after developing ventricular tachycardia (a fast, abnormal heart rate).

There were also reports that patients in a French hospital had similar heart rhythm problems after taking hydroxychloroquine. Heart rhythm problems are a known complication of anti-malarial drugs, so this isn’t exactly surprising. But it does show that the risk is not worth the benefit when it comes to treating COVID-19 with these drugs.

Stay the course with social distancing

As more studies like this come out, I’m sure far fewer doctors and hospitals will use these drugs to treat COVID-19 patients. Hopefully, safer, more effective treatment options will emerge soon.

In the meantime, keep doing everything you can to flatten the curve and reduce your risk of developing or spreading the virus — like social distancing.


  1. Rita Wilson on her coronavirus recovery and raising money with “Hip Hop Hooray” remix — CBS News
  2. Hydroxychloroquine is not effective for treating coronavirus, according to small trial — MedicalXpress
  3. No evidence of rapid antiviral clearance or clinical benefit with the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin in patients with severe COVID-19 infection — Médecine et Maladies Infectieuses
  4. Trial of chloroquine to treat COVID-19 stopped early due to heart complications — Live Science
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.