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One of the hottest debates in the coronavirus pandemic is whether the malaria drugs promoted as possible treatments by President Donald Trump really work. But Americans don’t seem overly eager to help answer the question.

Enrollment in several clinical trials of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine — including two by the University of Washington — has been anemic so far. Fewer than 260 volunteers, out of a target of 2,000, have signed up for a $9.5 million UW study being conducted in Seattle and six other sites across the country. Another multi-site project coordinated by the UW has only about 30 patients enrolled.

Researchers say enrollment in the trials plummeted after preliminary reports of possible heart arrhythmias associated with the drugs, followed by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning that they should be administered only in hospitals or clinical trials.

Researchers say the potential risks of the drugs have been exaggerated in the heated political controversy ignited when Trump first began promoting them. Critics of the president blasted him for touting unproven medications, while his supporters have accused scientists of cover-ups and conspiracies.

Some people poisoned themselves by taking high doses of the drugs or related chemicals, thinking they would provide protection from the novel coronavirus.

Now, the randomized, controlled trials necessary to settle the debate are threatened.

“We need an adequate number of people to enroll to know what the effectiveness is with confidence,” said UW epidemiologist Dr. Ruanne Barnabas, who’s leading a study to find out if hydroxychloroquine can prevent infection in people like health-care workers who have been exposed to the virus.

“The problem with all the exposure that hydroxychloroquine has received is that at first, everybody wanted to take it… and now nobody wants to take it,” said Dr. Jon Giles, leader of the Columbia project. “It’s gone from one extreme that’s bad for science to another extreme, which is also not good for science.”

Dr. Christine Johnston, an infectious disease specialist at the UW, said she and her team have found many prospective volunteers are interested and want to help, but are confused and wary about the drugs and their possible side effects.

Johnston’s trial is aimed at finding out if hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin, singly or in combination, can prevent pneumonia and other serious complications in people who have the virus, but aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized. People with conditions that might make them vulnerable to cardiac problems are excluded, and all participants are monitored regularly for any health issues.

“I think people are getting a lot of misinformation,” Johnston said. “They’ve either heard that it’s a great drug that’s going to cure everything, or that it’s a bad drug and it’s not safe, when neither of those things is likely to be true. But we need to do the study to be able to answer those questions.”

More information on the two UW trials is available at www.covid19treatmentstudy.org and www.covid19pepstudy.org.

Read the entire story at The Seattle Times. Ruanne Barnabas and Christine Johnston. ICRC/DGH, are quoted.