What is the role of hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin in the treatment of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

Updated: Nov 16, 2020
  • Author: David J Cennimo, MD, FAAP, FACP, AAHIVS; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Answer

Opposing conclusions by French researchers regarding viral clearance and clinical benefit with the regimen of hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin have been published. [533, 534, 535]

A small prospective study found no evidence of a strong antiviral activity or clinical benefit conferred by hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin. Molina et al assessed virologic and clinical outcomes of 11 consecutive hospitalized patients who received hydroxychloroquine (600 mg/day for 10 days) and azithromycin (500 mg on day 1, then 250 mg days 2-5). The study group included 7 men and 4 women with a mean age of 58.7 years (range, 20-77 years); 8 had significant comorbidities associated with poor outcomes (ie, obesity in 2, solid cancer in 3, hematological cancer in 2, and HIV infection in 1). Ten of the eleven patients had fever and received oxygen via nasal cannula. Within 5 days, one patient died and two were transferred to the ICU. Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were discontinued in one patient owing to prolonged QT interval. Nasopharyngeal swabs remained positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA in 8 of 10 patients (80%; 95% confidence interval, 49-94) at days 5-6 after treatment initiation. [535]

In direct contrast to the aforementioned results, another study in France evaluated patients treated with hydroxychloroquine (n=26) against a control group (n=16) who received standard of care. After dropping 6 patients from the analysis for having incomplete data, the 20 remaining patients receiving hydroxychloroquine (200 mg PO q8h) had improved nasopharyngeal clearance of the virus on day 6 (70% [14/20] vs 12.5% [2/16]). [533] This is an unusual approach to reporting results because the clinical correlation with nasopharyngeal clearance on day 6 is unknown and several patients changed status within a few days of that endpoint (converting from negative back to positive). The choice of that particular endpoint was also not explained by the authors, yet 4 of the 6 excluded patients had adverse outcomes (admission to ICU or death) at that time but were not counted in the analysis. Furthermore, patients who refused to consent to the study group were included in the control arm, indicating unorthodox study enrollment.

This small open-label study of hydroxychloroquine in France included azithromycin in 6 patients for potential bacterial superinfection (500 mg once, then 250 mg PO daily for 4 days). These patients were reported to have 100% clearance of SARS-CoV-2. While intriguing, these results warrant further analysis. The patients receiving combination therapy had initially lower viral loads, and, when compared with patients receiving hydroxychloroquine alone with similar viral burden, the results are fairly similar (6/6 vs 7/9). [533]

The French researchers continued their practice of using hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin and accumulated data in 80 patients with at least 6 days of follow-up. They note that the 6 patients enrolled in their first analysis were also included in the present case series, with a longer follow-up. However, it was not clear from the description in their posted methods when patients were assessed. A favorable outcome was defined as not requiring aggressive oxygen therapy or transfer to the ICU after 3 days of treatment. Sixty-five of the 80 patients (81.3%) met this outcome. One patient aged 86 years died, and a 74-year-old patient remained in the ICU. Two others were transferred to the ICU and then back to the infection ward. Results showed a decrease in nasopharyngeal viral load tested via qPCR, with 83% negative at day 7 and 93% at day 8. Virus culture results from patient respiratory samples were negative in 97.5% patients at day 5. [534] This is described as a promising method of reducing spread of SARS-CoV-2, but, unfortunately, the study lacked a control group and did not compare treatment with hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin to a similar group of patients receiving no drug therapy or hydroxychloroquine alone. Overall, the acuity of these patients was low, and 92% had a low score on the national Early Warning System used to assess risk of clinical deterioration. Only 15% were febrile, a common criterion for testing in the United States, and 4 individuals were considered asymptomatic carriers. In addition, the results did not delineate between asymptomatic carriers and those with high viral load or low viral load.

Nonhospitalized patients with early COVID-19

Hydroxychloroquine did not improve outcomes when administered to outpatient adults (n = 423) with early COVID-19. Change in symptom severity over 14 days did not differ between the hydroxychloroquine and placebo groups (P = 0.117). At 14 days, 24% (49 of 201) of participants receiving hydroxychloroquine had ongoing symptoms compared with 30% (59 of 194) receiving placebo (P = 0.21). Medication adverse effects occurred in 43% (92 of 212) of participants receiving hydroxychloroquine compared with 22% (46 of 211) receiving placebo (P< 0.001). Among patients receiving placebo, 10 were hospitalized (two cases unrelated to COVID-19), one of whom died. Among patients receiving hydroxychloroquine, four were hospitalized and one nonhospitalized patient died (P = 0.29). [536]

Clinical trials evaluating prevention

Various clinical trials in the United States were initiated to determine if hydroxychloroquine reduces the rate of infection when used by individuals at high risk for exposure, such as high-risk healthcare workers, first responders, and individuals who share a home with a COVID-19–positive individual. [531, 537, 538, 539, 540, 541, 542]

Results from the PATCH trial (n=125) did not show any benefit of hydroxychloroquine to reduce infection among healthcare workers compared with placebo. [523]  

Another study rerolled 1483 healthcare workers, of which 79% performed aerosol-generating procedures did not show a difference in preventing infection with once or twice weekly hydroxychloroquine compared with placebo. The incidence of SARS-CoV-2 laboratory-confirmed or symptomatic compatible illness was 0.27 events per person-year with once-weekly and 0.28 events per person-year with twice-weekly hydroxychloroquine compared with 0.38 events per person-year with placebo (p = 0.18 and 0.22 respectively). [527]  

Results from a double-blind randomized trial (n = 821) from the University of Minnesota found no benefit of hydroxychloroquine (n = 414) in preventing illness due to COVID-19 compared with placebo (n = 407) when used as postexposure prophylaxis in asymptomatic participants within 4 days following high-risk or moderate-risk exposure. Overall, 87.6% of participants had high-risk exposures without eye shields and surgical masks or respirators. New COVID-19 (either PCR-confirmed or symptomatically compatible) developed in 107 participants (13%) during the 14-day follow-up. Incidence of new illness compatible with COVID-19 did not differ significantly between those receiving hydroxychloroquine (49 of 414 [11.8%]) and those receiving placebo (58 of 407 [14.3%]) (P = 0.35). [543]

QT prolongation with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin

Chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin each carry the warning of QT prolongation and can be associated with an increased risk of cardiac death when used in a broader population. [544] Because of this risk, the American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association, and the Heart Rhythm Society have published a thorough discussion of the arrhythmogenicity of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin that includes a suggested protocol for clinical research QT assessment and monitoring when the two drugs are coadministered. [545, 546]

A Brazilian study comparing chloroquine high-dose (600 mg PO BID for 10 days) and low-dose (450 mg BID for 1 day, then 450 mg/day for 4 days) observed QT prolongation in 25% of patients in the high-dose group. All patients received other drugs (ie, azithromycin, oseltamivir) that may contribute to prolonged QT. [547]

An increased 30-day risk of cardiovascular mortality, chest pain/angina, and heart failure was observed with the addition of azithromycin to hydroxychloroquine from an analysis of pooled data from Japan, Europe, and the United States. The analysis compared use of hydroxychloroquine, sulfamethoxazole, or the combinations of hydroxychloroquine plus amoxicillin or hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin. [548]

For more information, see QT Prolongation with Potential COVID-19 Pharmacotherapies.

Doxycycline

A few case reports and small case series have speculated on a use for doxycycline in COVID-19. Most seem to have been searching for an antibacterial to replace azithromycin for use in combination with hydroxychloroquine. In general, the use of HCQ has been abandoned. The anti-inflammatory effects of doxycycline were also postulated to moderate the cytokine surge of COVID-19 and provide some benefits. However, the data on corticosteroid use has returned, and is convincing and strongly suggests their use. It is unclear that doxycycline would provide further benefits. Finally, concomitant bacterial infection during acute COVID-19 is proving to be rare decreasing the utility of antibacterial drugs. Overall, there does not appear to be a routine role for doxycycline.


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