The battle to beat Covid-19 is a global race, with the French government authorising more trials of a drug to combat the virus.
Early tests in France were deemed “promising” and research continues worldwide into a possible vaccination against Covid-19.
Widespread tests on the effectiveness of the drug chloroquine are going ahead, said French health minister Olivier Véran, who confirmed early tests by renowned infectious diseases researcher Professor Didier Raoult had been successful.
Prof Raoult is based at the infectious diseases institute (IHU) in Marseille.
Prof Raoult said the first Covid-19 patients he had treated with hydroxychloroquine had seen a rapid and effective speeding up of their healing process, and a sharp decrease in the time they remained contagious.
The treatment was offered to 24 patients, who were among the first to become infected in the south east of France, and who had voluntarily admitted themselves to hospital for the process.
Prof Raoult said: “Two towns in the protocol, Nice and Avignon, gave us [infected] patients who had not yet received treatment.
“We were able to ascertain that patients who had not received Plaquenil [a brand name for hydroxychloroquine] were still contagious after six days but of those that had received it, only 25% were still contagious.”
Hydroxychloroquine is normally used to prevent and treat malaria and to treat auto-immune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
A US academic study said: “Use of chloroquine (tablets) is showing favourable outcomes in humans infected with coronavirus, including faster time to recovery and shorter hospital stay. It also has strong potential as a prophylactic [preventative] measure in the lab, while we wait for a vaccine to be developed.
“Chloroquine is an inexpensive, globally available drug that has been in widespread use since 1945 against malaria, auto-immune and various other conditions… it can be prescribed to adults and children. It can also be safely taken by pregnant women and nursing mothers.”
In France, Plaquenil is manufactured by the Sanofi laboratory.
Sanofi has said it could offer “millions of doses” to treat 300,000 people if necessary.
The new trials will attempt to test the drug more widely across France, independently replicate Prof Raoult’s results, and ensure the findings are scientifically robust enough, before any possible decision might be made to roll any treatment or vaccine out to the wider public.
Mr Véran has fast-tracked authorisation for the new trials and said: “I am aware of the results [by Prof Raoult] and I have now authorised a larger study by other teams to be started as soon as possible, on a larger number of patients.
“It is absolutely fundamental that we base all public health decisions on validated scientific data and this validation process is non-negotiable. If the results are good, we will be overjoyed.”
Some experts have warned of the dangers of authorising the use of hydroxychloroquine too quickly, in the absence of wider studies, and said that the side- effects can be severe, especially in the case of overdose.
Tests have already started in Lille (Hauts-de-France), said Mr Véran, while others in China in February had already suggested that hydroxychloroquine was effective against Covid-19, in a test of 100 patients.
So far, no country – nor the World Health Organisation (WHO) – has officially published treatment measures against Covid-19, but in China and South Korea, guidelines outline the use of hydroxychloroquine as an “effective treatment”, a US report has said.
Researchers worldwide are working to develop a vaccine.
The first human clinical trial of a potential vaccine has started at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, in the US. Tests of other possible vaccines include Gilead Sciences’ anti-viral treatment, which is being tested across Asia; a DNA vaccine by harmaceutical company Inovio; and work on anti-bodies by biotechnology group Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.