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

Updated: Jul 01, 2020
  • Author: Medscape Drugs & Diseases; more...
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Opposing conclusions by French researchers regarding viral clearance and clinical benefit with the regimen of hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin have been published. [59, 60, 61]

A small prospective study found no evidence of a strong antiviral activity or clinical benefit from use of hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin. Molina et al assessed virologic and clinical outcomes of 11 consecutive patients hospitalized who received hydroxychloroquine (600 mg per day x10 days) and azithromycin (500 mg Day 1, then 250 mg days 2-5). Patient demographics were as follows: 7 men and 4 women; mean age 58.7 years (range: 20-77); 8 had significant comorbidities associated with poor outcomes (ie, obesity 2; solid cancer 3; hematological cancer 2; HIV-infection 1). Ten of the eleven patients had fever and received oxygen via nasal cannula. Within 5 days, 1 patient died, 2 were transferred to the ICU. Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were discontinued in 1 patient owing to prolonged QT interval. Nasopharyngeal swabs remained positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA in 8/10 patients (80%, 95% confidence interval: 49-94) at days 5-6 after treatment initiation. [61]

In direct contrast to 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 who received treatment 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]). [59] 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). [59]

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 on combination therapy 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. [60] 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.


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