France’s famous “Dr. Hydroxychloroquine,” Professor Didier Raoult, was invited to testify at a French Commission of Inquiry on June 22, 2020. The Commission is tasked with investigating the (mis)managment of the Covid-19 crisis. The situation in France has its unique points, but it resembles what happened in other countries that had been submitting their health care systems to austerity budgets in recent decades. It became clear in this crisis that the laisser faire economic ideology really meant laisser mourir, or live and let die, to use a phrase more familiar to English-speakers.
I have written other posts about the controversies surrounding the use of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycine (here, here, here and here), so I won’t go into the details. It is impossible at this point to convince doubters that this treatment favored by Professor Raoult really is effective in the treatment of Covid-19, but the evidence I discussed in previous posts convinced me that he was on to something.
Now that there is some perspective on the March-April period of worldwide panic, it is obvious that there are no clear differences in mortality rates between countries that enforced “lockdown” measures and those that didn’t. In some countries mortality rates were appallingly high only because of an accidental or wilful neglect to care for the elderly. In Sweden, health authorities directed medical institutions to treat elderly Covid patients with palliative measures only. Dr. Jon Tallinger started to speak out against this crime, calling it a “senecide” that will be a dark stain on his nation’s history. He points out that simple routine treatment with oxygen, IV fluids and antibiotics would have saved the lives of many of these elderly patients. Some would have succumbed, but it wasn’t necessary to consign all of them simply to morphine treatment and a quick, painless end. Open-heart surgery is difficult for an elderly patient to survive, but an oxygen mask is not a major medical intervention.
Dr. Malcolm Kendrick summed up pandemic reaction in many Western countries with this assessment of the situation in Britain:
How many people aged 15 or under have died of Covid-19? Four. The chance of dying from a lightning strike is one in 700,000. The chance of dying of Covid-19 in that age group is one in 3.5million. And we locked them all down. Even among the 15- to 44-year-olds, the death rate is very low and the vast majority of deaths have been people who had significant underlying health conditions. We locked them down as well. We locked down the population that had virtually zero risk of getting any serious problems from the disease, and then spread it wildly among the highly vulnerable age group. If you had written a plan for making a complete bollocks of things you would have come up with this one.
When Swedish doctors point out that many elderly patients could have been saved with antibiotics, they are coming around to what Professor Raoult has been saying since the beginning. Treatment of vulnerable patients, in the early stages of infection, with traditional, cheap and available drugs would have significantly lowered the mortality rate. Professor Raoult achieved very good results with his patients, yet his critics seemed to be upset only because he hadn’t done a years-long double blind trial. Once the political furor and confusion over hydroxychloroquine has passed (with its unfortunate associations with Trumpism), we may see the medical establishment quietly accept his therapy, and other simple interventions, now that they are learning how to manage the disease without quick resort to the deadly last resort of ventilators.
The following translation of a French news report sums up the three-hour testimony given by Professor Raoult to the Commission of Inquiry:
Professor Didier Raoult was heard by the National Assembly’s Commission of Inquiry on Covid-19 on Wednesday afternoon. In particular, the director of the IHU [University Hospital] in Marseille accused the government of lying about the availability of PCR tests, and reiterated his belief that hydroxychloroquine is effective against coronavirus.
The epidemiologist and director of the IHU in Marseille Didier Raoult was heard on Wednesday afternoon by the Commission of Inquiry of the National Assembly on the management of the coronavirus epidemic. The defender of hydroxychloroquine began his hearing at 5 p.m., discussing the subjects of chloroquine, PCR tests and the reasons for his withdrawal from the Scientific Council.
Didier Raoult showed up in front of the legislators without his white lab coat but with his usual self-assurance. He has not renounced any of his views, especially about his famous treatment based on hydroxychloroquine, which continues to divide the scientific community. Feeling even a little flattered by all the attention, he said he was overwhelmed by the controversy, which had become global. “It became a sort of war for or against, with great, complex motives involved,” he said.
“I tell you publicly, at the risk of going to jail and being fined 75,000 euros, I don’t know Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. And so I didn’t tell them to use chloroquine,” he said. Between studies for and studies against, time will sort out the truth, he added, appearing certain he would be proven correct.
Didier Raoult also reiterated the claim that some critics of hydroxychloroquine are financially linked to the Gilead laboratory, the manufacturer of Remdesivir, another compound whose effectiveness has been tested in the treatment of Covid-19.
In response to requests for clarification from legislators, the microbiologist referred them to the Transparency Health database, which identifies links between companies and health sector actors. Assuring that he had observed an “obsession with wanting to treat people with Remdesivir,” he said he saw it as a result of the laboratory’s strategy of “influence” in the service of a “pure stock market play.”
The second major point he made at this hearing was about the famous PCR diagnostic tests. How is it that he could do it en masse as early as March when the rest of France was failing so badly? For him, there was no problem. Everywhere in France, we could have tested more. “The way it was organised is totally archaic,” he said, referring to the system of national research centres.
The Covid-19 molecular diagnostic test was set up on January 17, 2020 by the Pasteur Institute, and the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) for respiratory viruses with the Hospices Civils de Lyon, but commission members were told nationwide deployment was delayed several times. This system of regional “small CNRSs” leads their leaders to “consider that the disease is their territory.” They are like “badgers in their burrows that bite if one approaches,” he declared.
“I don’t agree with the decision that was taken not to generalize the tests,” he said, noting that “you can’t study” a new disease “if you don’t test for it.” “I was the one who explained to the President for the first time that the PCR is very simple and that anyone can do it. And so all this time, we haven’t been told the truth,” he said. “It’s an extremely simple, mundane exam. Everyone is capable of doing it. This can be done by private labs and it was essential to do so because we did not know anything about the disease at that time.”
Regarding the risk of a second wave of the epidemic, Didier Raoult referred to the hypothesis that Covid-19 could become “a seasonal disease like other coronaviruses” but also the hypothesis that “it would disappear as SARS did, purely and simply, at the end of the epidemic. What sustains infections in the northern hemisphere is their circulation in the southern hemisphere,” he said. “Winter is now in the southern hemisphere. Since New Zealand has a latitude that is the same as ours in the southern hemisphere, if there is a coronavirus outbreak in New Zealand that is currently beginning, it may start again here and become seasonal next year during the cold season.”
As for the reasons for his resignation from the Scientific Council, he explained: “I myself have a scientific council in Marseille that is the envy of the world.” The composition of the Scientific Council headed by Jean-François Delfraissy did not impress him. “No specialists in coronavirus, conflicts of interest… I had no time to waste with it,” he said.
To make the report as comprehensive as possible, the Commission of Inquiry says it wants to hear all versions of how the crisis was managed. Next up will be Professor Karine Lacombe, someone who has been very critical of Professor Raoult.