Hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19: Lack of Efficacy and the Social Construction of Plausibility

Am J Ther. 2020 Nov/Dec;27(6):e573-e583. doi: 10.1097/MJT.0000000000001294.


Background: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 SARS- Cov2 has taken the world by surprise. Among the first promising repurposing agents proposed for treatment and prophylaxis, 2 antimalarial agents came into limelight: chloroquine and its less toxic derivative, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). Intense research and public debates have followed.

Areas of uncertainty: As HCQ is still used and studied, future research may bring novel evidence, modifying the state-of-the-art. Despite the lack of a single randomized control trial (RCT) with positive results, there are currently (as for the search on 30th of August 2020) more than 250 RCT registered on ClinicalTrials.gov with HCQ in COVID patients, and more than 150 of them are "still recruiting" or "not yet recruiting" patients.

Data sources: Our study combines a therapeutic evaluation of RCT data with a sociological analysis of related controversies, examining scientific and public arena discourses.

Results: Although any hope of a positive effect was brought exclusively by some and not all of the observational studies, none of the 7 RCT published until now have found any benefit. From a sociological perspective, the HCQ controversy is a useful case study for understanding the construction of plausibility in a cultural context polarized into competing versions of reality, with different epistemologies and ideologies.

Conclusions: The results of the first RCTs have been published, and they are disappointing; beneficial effects of HCQ could not be proven either for negative conversion on polymerase chain reactions of COVID patients or for postexposure prophylaxis. The question to be asked is: how many studies do we need until HCQ is abandoned? Argumentative time work, appealing to temporal properties of HCQ including its historical use, accumulation of evidence, alternative therapeutic scenarios, and sensationalist tempo for rhetorical purpose, plays a significant role in its continuing legitimation.

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus / isolation & purification
  • Betacoronavirus / pathogenicity
  • COVID-19
  • COVID-19 Drug Treatment
  • Coronavirus Infections / drug therapy*
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Drug Repositioning*
  • Humans
  • Hydroxychloroquine / therapeutic use*
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / drug therapy*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • Politics
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*
  • Risk Assessment
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Hydroxychloroquine