Dr Didier Raoult, the French researcher behind Donald Trump’s claims that the world has found a cure for the coronavirus Covid-19 in a common antimalarial and immunosuppressant called hydroxychloroquine, renounced his collaboration with the French government in a spectacular meltdown that is par for the course for this controversial medical professional. Raoult, who with his long and unruly white locks bears a striking physical resemblance to Trump’s former personal physician Harold Bornstein, also recalls the latter doctor in his constant use of superlatives.
But unlike the mild-mannered Bornstein, Raoult is a vociferous figure, a vocal climate change denier who has been questioned on his research techniques. The microbiologist, who runs possibly the world’s foremost infectious disease department at the Méditerranée University Hospital in Marseille, has frequently been the subject of criticism, if not alarm. Once, when asked why he sports a menacing skull and cross bones ring on his pinkie finger, Raoult said it was “parce que ça les fait chier” (“to fuck with them”).
The Riviera doctor broke with French president Emmanuel Macron’s strategic coronavirus scientific study group on March 24 because he disagreed with the president’s moderate approach, preferring a massive rollout of chloroquine, manufactured as Plaquenil by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi. Raoult wants to treat all Covid-19 patients at his institute with the drug, and ignored standard protocols to test it in his trials. Sanofi has told the French government it stands at the ready to produce the drug en masse.
The clinical trial upon which Raoult drew his conclusions about the success of chloroquine in treating Covid-19 was too small and the results inconclusive, according to other scientists.
But the clinical trial upon which Raoult drew his conclusions about the success of chloroquine in treating Covid-19 was too small and the results inconclusive, according to other scientists. Raoult described the treatment of 24 patients with the drug and said that 75% of them tested negative within six days.
“Based on an absolutely questionable scientific trial that shows absolutely nothing when one looks at the exact numbers and the way the trial was conducted, many people are being given false hope of healing,” asserted Prof. Karine Lacombe, chief of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Hôpital St-Antoine in Paris. Speaking on French television channel InfoFrance2, Lacombe was adamant, explicitly questioning the ethics of Raoult’s conclusions about chloroquine while stating, “What is happening in Marseille is absolutely scandalous … and goes beyond any ethical approach.”
Chloroquine is used as a malaria prophylactic and, as the widely used drug Plaquenil, is used to retard the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus erythematosus. Chloroquine is not a cure for any of these diseases but acts by suppressing the user’s immune response so that the particular disease does not develop.
Chloroquine is not without significant side effects. Users require regular checks for liver damage and it has also been implicated in macular degeneration. It is known to cause uncontrollable itching, indicating an allergic response, according to a number of memes and tweets making the rounds out of Nigeria. In that country, chloroquine is available at low cost over the counter and many children were dosed with the drug in the past to prevent malaria. One Nigerian Twitter user implied they would rather die than take chloroquine by writing “Doctor: Take chloroquine or die of the coronavirus. Me: ….” followed by a photo of a man in a coffin.
The drug has also been accused of provoking serious neuropsychiatric problems, similar to its pharmaceutical cousin Mefloquine, which was withdrawn from the market partly for that reason.
In 2013, Dr Raoult declared that “Climate predictions are absurd,” laying out his criticism in an article in French magazine Le Point. Insisting that models foreseeing global warming “have been revealed to be false,” Raoult asserted that, “The planet has not warmed since 1998.” In 2016, he published a book entitled “Arrêtons d’avoir peur” (“Let’s Stop Being Afraid”), in which he called Darwin’s theory of natural selection “a delusion”.
In early 2020, Raoult seemed to even be a coronavirus denier. On January 21, Raoult declared on his hospital’s Youtube channel that, “Three Chinese people die and there’s a worldwide alert… It’s crazy, there’s no more sense.” “In a February 4 interview with Corsican media outlet Corse-Matin, he declared, “Stop the madness…. There is more chance of dying of another virus before the coronavirus.” Further on, he insisted, “There are probably more people killed by scooter accidents in China than by the virus.”
While Raoult, and Sanofi, want to forge ahead with chloroquine, other doctors urge a more cautious approach involving further testing.