Potential coronavirus drug linked to increased risk of heart arrhythmia

A drug that has been touted as a potential therapy against the coronavirus has been linked to an increased risk of cardiac arrhythmia in COVID-19 patients, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found.

“The accumulating evidence is that there are limited data to suggest efficacy and there’s growing evidence that suggests toxicity,” Dr. Howard Gold, infectious disease doctor at BIDMC, said of the drug hydroxychloroquine.

Gold and his colleagues published a study in JAMA Cardiology on Friday that suggests patients who received the anti-malarial drug for COVID-19 were at an increased risk of electrical changes to the heart, which can cause arrhythmias and potentially lead to heart attack, stroke, or death.

“It’s one of the reasons why, if the drug is going to be used at all, which I think it is in question at this point, it should only be used in a clinical trial,” said Gold.

The combination of hydroxychloroquine with the antibiotic azithromycin was linked to even greater health risks compared to hydroxychloroquine alone, the research found.

President Trump had previously hailed the drug as a “game changer,” tweeting in March, “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”

The study evaluated 90 adults with the coronavirus who were hospitalized at BIDMC between March 1 and April 7 and received at least one day of hydroxychloroquine, which can stay in the body for up to three weeks, according to Gold.

Seven of 37 patients who received the drug alone developed an electrical disturbance in the heart taking a longer-than-normal 500 milliseconds or more to discharge and recharge the lower chambers of the heart during each beat.

Three patients had a change of 60 milliseconds or more, and of the 53 patients who also received azithromycin, 21% had delays of 500 milliseconds or more, and 13% experienced a change of 60 milliseconds or more.

Hydroxychloroquine is commonly used to treat patients with inflammatory autoimmune issues such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Gold said these concerns don’t really apply to people with those types of diseases.

“It’s a different population, and there is some risk in that population but it’s not the same,” said Gold.

The medical community is now turning its focus to a different drug, remdesivir, for the treatment of the coronavirus.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed emergency use of that intravenous drug for severe COVID patients who are hospitalized with the disease.

The FDA acted after preliminary results from a government-sponsored study showed that remdesivir shortened the time to recovery by 31%, or about four days on average, for hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Herald wire services contributed to this report. 

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Author: Alexi Cohan

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