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400 patients will be treated in the trial to study if hydroxychloroquine can treat COVID-19. Credit: Son Nguyen

The Perelman School of Medicine is enrolling patients in clinical trials to study if the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can treat coronavirus.

The clinical trials will begin next week and will attempt to determine if the drug can treat already infected people or help prevent infection altogether. HCQ is a drug used to treat arthritis and malaria, although there is limited research regarding its use as a COVID-19 treatment.

Ravi Amaravadi, an oncologist who is leading the study, has been studying the drug for over a decade, and told NBC10 its effects on cancer patients have not been severe, which could indicate it is safe for COVID-19 treatment.  

“We think this is going to be safe," Amaravadi told NBC10. "However, we don’t know until we do the proper clinical trial because with COVID-19, the disease itself is a little bit mysterious."

The trial will treat 400 patients in three different substudies to determine if the drug can reduce the number of days infected patients need to be quarantined, reduce the time it takes to discharge an infected patient from the hospital, and prevent infection for health care workers treating infected patients, NBC10 reported.

The study will be limited to patients and health care workers at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Amaravadi told NBC10 this will allow for closer control and faster results.

HCQ gained national prominence when 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump tweeted about it as a potential treatment on March 21. In his daily press briefing on Saturday, Trump renewed his recommendation that COVID-19 patients take the drug.

“What do you have to lose? Take it,” Trump said. “I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s their doctor’s choice or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine. Try it, if you’d like.”

While the president continues to tout the positive effects of HCQ in fighting COVID-19, researchers and health experts warn that the effectiveness and safety of the drug is still unknown. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Friday that people should not assume HCQ is a “knockout drug” in treating or preventing COVID-19.

Amaravadi told NBC10 that even if the drug is approved as a COVID-19 treatment, it cannot replace a vaccine.

“With this virus and the way that it’s spreading, I think we have to use all available resources and all available modalities to tackle it," Amaravadi told NBC10. "And [HCQ] may be an important treatment and preventative strategy, but I don’t think it will take the place of a vaccine."

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