A Henry Ford Health System study shows the controversial anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine helps lower the death rate of COVID-19 patients, the Detroit-based health system said Thursday.
Officials with the Michigan health system said the study found the drug “significantly” decreased the death rate of patients involved in the analysis.
The study analyzed 2,541 patients hospitalized among the system’s six hospitals between March 10 and May 2 and found 13% of those treated with hydroxychloroquine died while 26% of those who did not receive the drug died.
Among all patients in the study, there was an overall in-hospital mortality rate of 18%, and many who died had underlying conditions that put them at greater risk, according to Henry Ford Health System. Globally, the mortality rate for hospitalized patients is between 10% and 30%, and it's 58% among those in the intensive care unit or on a ventilator.
“As doctors and scientists, we look to the data for insight,” said Steven Kalkanis, CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group. “And the data here is clear that there was a benefit to using the drug as a treatment for sick, hospitalized patients.”
The study, published in the International Society of Infectious Disease, found patients did not suffer heart-related side effects from the drug.
Patients with a median age of 64 were among those analyzed, with 51% men and 56% African American. Roughly 82% of the patients began receiving hydroxychloroquine within 24 hours and 91% within 48 hours, a factor Dr. Marcus Zervos identified as a potential key to the medication’s success.
“We attribute our findings that differ from other studies to early treatment, and part of a combination of interventions that were done in supportive care of patients, including careful cardiac monitoring," said Zervos, division head of infectious disease for the health system who conducted the study with epidemiologist Dr. Samia Arshad.
Other studies, Zervos noted, included different populations or were not peer-reviewed.
“Our dosing also differed from other studies not showing a benefit of the drug,” he said. "We also found that using steroids early in the infection associated with a reduction in mortality."
But Zervos cautioned against extrapolating the results for treatment outside hospital settings and without further study.
Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, respond to the study Thursday by noting "prescribers have a responsibility to apply the best standards of care and use their clinical judgment when prescribing and dispensing hydroxychloroquine or any other drugs to treat patients with legitimate medical conditions."
The study found about 20% of patients treated with a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin died and 22% who were treated with azithromycin alone compared with the 26% of patients who died after not being treated with either medication.
Henry Ford Health has been working on multiple clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine, including one that is testing whether the drug can prevent COVID-19 infections in first responders who work with coronavirus patients. The first responder clinical trial was trumpeted by Trump administration officials early in the pandemic.
Many health care institutions, including the World Health Organization, suspended clinical trials of the drug touted by President Donald Trump after a faulty study was published in the British medical journal The Lancet on May 22. The WHO restarted the trials in June.
The study is vital, Zervos said, as medical workers prepare for a possible second wave of the virus and there is plenty of research that still needs to be conducted to solidify an effective treatment.
Still, use of the malaria drug became highly controversial.
Doctors at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan's health system, remain steadfast in their decision not to use hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients, which they stopped using in mid-March after their own early tracking of the treatment found little benefit to patients with some serious side effects.
Michigan's largest system of hospitals, Southfield-based Beaumont Health, also stopped using the decades-old anti-malarial drug as a coronavirus treatment after deciding it was ineffective.
St. Joseph Mercy health system has also backed away from the treatment. The system has St. Joseph hospitals in Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Howell, Livonia and Pontiac, as well as the Mercy Health hospitals in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Shelby.
Heidi Pillen, director of pharmacy at Beaumont Health, confirmed on Thursday that the health system is not using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients.
A recent United Kingdom study evaluating hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients with coronavirus was stopped after preliminary analysis found it didn’t have any benefit. About 26% of patients in the trial using the drug died, compared with about 24% receiving the usual care, according to the Oxford University study.
But doctors at Detroit Medical Center's Sinai-Grace told The Detroit News in April, when the hospital was overloaded with senior COVID patients, that they were giving the drug to anyone they could.