Chloroquine has been marketed internationally since 1934 as an anti-malarial treatment. However the KULeuven discovered in 2004 that the drug was also effective in fighting the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. And SARS, like Covid-19, is a coronavirus.
The discovery in 2004 was made after tests on blood samples by the Leuven team. However at that point, the epidemic was already in decline, so chloroquine was never tested on patients.
The drug was, though, found to be effective in the lab in concentrations that present no danger to humans. Another advantage is that is it cheap to make €12 or €13 for 100 pills.
It has now shown promising results after being tested on patients infected with Covid-19 in ten hospitals in China – in Beijing, Hunan and Guangdong. After receiving chloroquine for one week the test patients showed less fever, better lung function and faster recovery from the virus.
Professor Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at KULeuven, has been examining reports from the Chinese ministry for science and technology – there are as yet no direct contacts with the Chinese government. He led the team carrying out tests back in 2004.
Prof. Van Ranst said he was “delighted” that chloroquine appears to be effective against the new virus. “It is simple to produce in large quantities, although for the time being there are still few producers worldwide. We would hope that chloroquine, especially since it is very cheap, can have an impact on the treatment of patients with the new virus.”
But he stressed that chloroquine is not a vaccine against the Covid-19 infection. It is only useful for treating people who have already contracted the disease.