Featured image: Didier Raoult. Photo: Twitter/raoult_didier
New Delhi: Didier Raoult, a French professor who promoted the use of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 earlier this year, has now been accused of spreading false information and will have to appear before a disciplinary panel.
According to an AFP report, the Marseille-based microbiologist has been charged with breaching doctors’ ethics by a group of specialists from France’s Infectious Diseases Society. They have filed a complaint with the national order of doctors of the Bouche-du-Rhône department1.
The hearing, which was approved after reviewing the complaints against Raoult, is set to take place next year. If found guilty, Raoult could be fined, let off with a warning or barred from practising. His lawyer confirmed they had received notice of the decision, and maintained that his client would be cleared.
Raoult heads the infectious diseases department of La Timone hospital in Marseille. He shot to prominence in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic when he touted a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, a common antibiotic, as a cure for COVID-19.
He has emerged as a divisive figure ever since he advocated the use of hydroxychloroquine, especially since the claim found other supporters shortly afterwards in American president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
In March, Raoult had announced results from a small clinical trial via a YouTube video, which is unusual in the world of science. He claimed in the video that three-quarters of 24 patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 were cured in six days. He also claimed his study of 80 patients showed “favourable” outcomes in four out of five treated with hydroxychloroquine.
Following his announcement, the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi offered to provide millions of doses of hydroxychloroquine to French authorities to treat up to 300,000 people.
And soon after US President Trump called the drug combo “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine”. The US subsequently witnessed a surge in prescriptions for the drug – in the absence of approval from the US Food and Drug Administration – and led to a shortage for patients who needed hydroxychloroquine to treat other conditions.
At the height of the pandemic, French president Emmanuel Macron even visited Raoult in Marseille, effectively boosting his political clout.
Next, under pressure from the White House, the US FDA authorised the drug’s use in emergency use-cases, and shortly after, India lifted its ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine to the US. Soon after, Trump publicly stated that he had been self-administering the drug to prevent coronavirus infection and several organisations, including the WHO, initiated studies to look into its possible efficacy.
Similarly, Brazilian President Bolsonaro also said he was taking the drug after testing positive for the coronavirus in July, and publicly pushed his health ministry to expand access to it.
However, the WHO halted its trial of the malaria drug for treatments for COVID-19 patients after a controversial study published in the The Lancet claimed that a hydroxychloroquine treatment regimen actually significantly increased the risk of cardiac arrhythmia and death instead of treating COVID-19.
The US Food and Drug Administration also revoked its authorisation for the drug and said that its unproven benefits “do not outweigh the known and potential risks.”
In India, the health ministry released an advisory in March directing healthcare workers and household contacts of COVID-19 patients to start taking hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic, leading to it becoming unavailable for people diagnosed with malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
In June, Raoult was asked to respond to questions from a parliamentary committee of lawmakers from different political parties, which had been launched to “learn lessons” about France’s response to its COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we want to understand from Mr Raoult is how he managed to follow a policy of mass-testing in Marseille”, a city that had “mortality rates well beneath” those elsewhere in the country, one lawmaker said.
Around the same time, in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper, Raoult said, “I treated more than 3,700 patients with this medication, with 0.5 percent mortality and no cardiac toxicity. What more do you want?”
“My hypothesis is that part of the population was naturally immunised against COVID-19 before the start of the epidemic,” he said, adding that “by speaking about natural immunity, I’ll be set on fire by the laboratories working on vaccines”.
However, many of his claims – these as well as others – have also come under a dark pall of doubt. For example, Raoult is also the author of a curiously high number of published scientific papers he has published – so much so that critics have maintained that he publishes more papers in a month than most researchers publish throughout their career.
“This is one of the secrets of the system put in place by Didier Raoult: publish at all costs,” Le Monde wrote in a profile that also raised several questions about his academic record.
For another example, Raoult is also a climate-sceptic – a label applied to people who have unwarranted doubts about the reality of climate change motivated by anthropogenic global warming. He has written columns calling climate predictions “absurd” – a position he has extended to the theory of evolution as well.
A type of administrative division in France↩