Christian Rappaz, “Big Pharma Torpedoed Didier Raoult and Hydroxychloroquine,” L’Illustré, June 11, 2020.
Translated by Dennis Riches
Although he does not consider the drug promoted by his famous Marseille colleague [Didier Raoult] as a miracle drug, the Parisian pulminologist Philippe Even, author of the best-selling book A Guide to 4,000 Drugs that are Useful, Useless or Dangerous, tells how the major laboratories almost succeeded in discrediting Prof. Raoult.
Christian Rappaz (CR): Professor, readers of L’Illustré remember your fight against the abuse of statin prescriptions in the treatment of cholesterol levels, a problem that you explained in our columns and dissected at a conference in Lausanne in 2017. At 88, how have you experienced this coronavirus crisis?
Philippe Even (PE): As best as I can, I would say, by following strict rules of hygiene and containment. I have an interest in doing this because, in addition to my age, I suffer from severe respiratory insufficiency. For now, I have happily dodged a bullet.
CR: Controversies have swirled around hydroxychloroquine and Professor Didier Raoult. The controversy turned into masquerade with the announcement of the British scientific journal The Lancet because it has just retracted the study it published three weeks ago, one which condemned the drug.
PE: This turnaround does not surprise me. You journalists have made a habit of using the word “prestigious” on behalf of the medical magazine you are quoting. It puts a wry smile on my face. While these journals do publish prestigious, reliable and serious studies and articles, they also publish countless articles sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. I am talking about these famous clinical trials which make what is called evidence-based medicine in the United States, but they are made entirely on the basis of fudged data. This connivance generates a lot of money for these weekly journals, which make a staggering profit. In truth, while these journals have a prestigious image, they are also the most dangerous for scientific progress, for the sick and for public finances. However, I welcome The Lancet’s courageous retraction, which, by the way, rehabilitates Didier Raoult.
CR: You are saying that these magazines knowingly publish articles that mislead public opinion and the entire medical world?
PE: It is not me who says it. It is the facts. In the United States, the Department of Health has opened about 20 cases against several firms in recent years. Faced with legal action, they were forced to reveal the portion of the results of their studies that they keep secret. These are the data revealing the true effectiveness and real side effects of the drugs they sell. After comparing them with the results they published, it became clear that the efficacy had been greatly exaggerated and the side effects ignored. These firms have been fined between $1 billion and $25 billion.
CR: Is this what happened with this famous study published by The Lancet concluding that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective or even toxic?
PE: Exactly. Tens of thousands of pieces of unverified information were collected over the internet without knowing who the patients were, their health status, what symptoms they had, how they had been followed, by which doctors, in which hospitals and what their associated diseases were. It was all thrown together and they thought the number 96,000 would impress everyone. On the receiving end, there are people who can honestly believe it. But above all, there was a desire on the part of the pharmaceutical industry to completely capture a gigantic market that was in danger of being served by a drug that costs almost nothing [hydroxychloroquine].
CR: And no one can put an end to these acts?
PE: No, unfortunately. Large corporations are the only ones that can fund studies that cost between $200 million and $1 billion. As a result, they publish what they want to publish, maintaining this perverse system. It has been an ongoing struggle for twenty years to get the raw data, but the industry systematically opposes it. At the end of the day, these trials win the support of physicians who do not have the objective data. With the information relayed by the scientific journals they pay, the firms therefore lie, shamelessly, to torpedo people like Didier Raoult. Just think about it. How could they be interested in selling a drug that costs half a euro per day, per person, while the antivirals promoted by them cost between 30 and 40 euros!?
CR: The effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine has yet to be demonstrated.
PE: Personally, I don’t think it’s a miracle drug, and Didier Raoult never claimed it was, by the way. He said there was a significant difference in the severity of the disease in people taking it from the onset of symptoms. Although his findings concerned only 40 patients, this drug, which was previously dispensed without a prescription and completely non-toxic, except for people with cardiovascular problems, has shown encouraging results in mice and cell cultures. The Chinese also used it. At the end of the day, if, thanks to chloroquine, the number of severe cases can be reduced by 5% to 6%, that is worthwhile. And recall that this malaria drug has been used by 500 million people [per year] for forty years.
CR: Do you know Didier Raoult?
PE: Of course. I have not worked with him, but as we defend the same positions on drugs and the organization of health care in France, I have often had the opportunity to meet him. He says obvious things that no one wants to hear.
CR: What, for example?
PE: That 99% of the drugs put on the market since the 1990s have very limited efficacy. With the exception of Sovaldi, an great drug that cures hepatitis C, the majority of drugs presented as new are equal to their predecessors but sold at two, three or four times the price, and have an efficiency ranging between 1% and 20%.
CR: This also includes cancer drugs?
PE: At the risk of hurting the pride of labs like Roche and Novartis, the undisputed leaders of the field, I would say yes. At best, new drugs, often overpriced, prolong life between two and six months, but cures are extremely rare.
CR: By being a little arrogant and carried away with himself, Raoult provoked a lot of hostility at the beginning of his interventions.
PE: That’s the way he is. And I think he hates the French virology establishment. But despite his flaws, Raoult is arguably the best-known and most respected French scientist in the world. He has to his credit no less than 145,000 citations in specialized journals, more than all the virologists of the Pasteur Institute, while those who demolish him on television or in newspapers have barely 500. Draw your own conclusions about that discrepancy.
CR: Back to Covid-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci, an adviser to President Trump, says that if a vaccine is discovered, its effectiveness may not go beyond a year.
PE: I have met Anthony Fauci several times. The first was thirty-five years ago. He is an extremely intelligent and cautious guy, supported by the very influential Italian-American clan from which he comes. He has been advising presidents for more than 20 years. The secret of his longevity lies in his communication style. He says things without really revealing what he thinks. In this case, he says that a vaccine will probably be discovered, but he does not reveal that he knows there is no certainty about whether it will immediately provoke an immune response or for how long. This is classic Fauci style.
CR: For now, without a vaccine and despite the deconfinement, the decline of the pandemic is spectacular in Europe.
PE: Yes, in effect. This is what Didier Raoult predicted more than a month ago. That said, two issues remain unresolved. First, what will happen this winter, and second, what consequences will the disease have in people who are no longer infected but who have gone through hospitalization, intensive care and intubation. It is estimated that 10% to 15% of them will have some respiratory insufficiency. The real problem in this case is the lungs. When they are not well, everything else goes wrong. At this point, it is not known is how damaged lungs will heal.
CR: What symptoms could alert these people who think they have recovered from the infection?
PE: With the lungs, it’s simple: shortness of breath at the slightest effort, like climbing a few stairs. If two months after you leave the hospital you still suffer from it, the deficiency will remain for life.
CR: In Switzerland, the information that stunned people came from the now retired “Mr. Coronavirus,” Dr. Daniel Koch, who said that the closure of schools would not have been necessary from an epidemiological point of view but that it had served to make the population understand the seriousness of the situation. Extreme, isn’t it?
PE: I am not very comfortable criticizing Swiss decisions. What I can say, beyond this indeed sobering statement is that if I had been in charge, I would have closed the schools. Although almost all children were not at risk from the virus, many were carriers and this chain had to be broken because of the contact between children and teachers, and children and parents.
CR: Children, precisely. A baby died of the virus in Switzerland a few days ago.
PE: It is obviously tragic and painful to hear, but it is still very rare. Professor Raoult explained why the vast majority of children are not endangered by the virus. According to him, every year there are hundreds of different coronaviruses circulating which often do not cause illness, or they cause just a mild cold, a runny nose or a 38-degree fever for a day. The children get them all, if I may say so, and when they encounter Covid-19, they are already immune to this new virus, unlike us adults.
CR: How can we explain that, with the exception of Brazil, it is the most advanced countries that report the greatest number of deaths?
PE: We didn’t want to take into account the Chinese experience and so failure occurred at the beginning. They did not treat with antibiotics, even though it prevents bacterial infection of lungs already weakened by the virus. They did not give anti-inflammatories, which calm and regulate the inflammatory storm, as it is called. It is a violent reaction that occurs when the immune response snaps. We knew about such an outcome, and we got it.
CR: How can such poor judgment be explained in 2020?
PE: This is scandalous enough to cause a revolt. All of our countries have agencies, ministries, and health services to prevent diseases and epidemics. All of these spheres are often colonized by doctors who call themselves public health specialists when most have never worked in emergency wards or intensive care units. They have favored work on obesity, alcoholism, or tobacco without really worrying about the arrival of a pandemic such as this one. In the end, these people who live on ideas and illusions advise governments, and this led to the decisions and consequences that we have seen, with the sum of lies and justifications that surrounded them. It’s pathetic.
CR: “I wonder how this Swiss person got involved in this matter.” The remark comes from Didier Raoult, the promoter of hydroxychloroquine, the drug at the centre of all controversies and now it relates to a huge scandal that has brought a part of the scientific community into disrepute.
PE: A reminder of the facts. On May 22, the British medical journal The Lancet published a study that suggested that hydroxychloroquine increases mortality and cardiac arrhythmias in patients hospitalized with Covid-19. These findings prompted the WHO to withdraw the drug from its testing protocols and 17 countries to ban its prescription. The four signatories of the study claimed that clinical trials were conducted on 96,000 people in 671 hospitals on six continents. Immediately, doubts were high about the seriousness of the flaws, and about 100 scientists signed an open letter entitled “Concerns about statistical analysis and data integrity.” Under pressure, The Lancet announced the withdrawal of the study on the evening of June 4, at the request of three of its co-authors, according to news reports.
Among them is Frank Ruschitzka, the famous Swiss person mentioned by Didier Raoult. Reading his CV, one wonders why this professor of cardiology, president of the University Centre of Cardiology and the Department of Cardiology at the University Hospital of Zurich, got himself involved this mess. Professor Ruschitzka, 57, has been honored many times for his work. The Swiss Society of Cardiology awarded him the Cardiovascular Science Prize, while he was awarded the annual Goetz-Preis of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Zurich for his excellence in clinical medicine and research. He received an honorary doctorate from the Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest.
The problem is that, like his three colleagues—all Americans—he is suspected of conflict of interest because of the relationship that his employer has with the large American laboratory Gilead. And these suspicions exist for good reason. Gilead has tried by all means to impose its antiviral drug Remdesivir as a treatment for Covid-19 (although its effectiveness has never been demonstrated) and thus eliminate its “competitor,” the 200-times cheaper, hydroxychloroquine. In its June 3 edition, the New York-based American newspaper The Epoch Times writes: “It should be noted that the Zurich Heart Centre tested Gilead-produced Darusentan in 2010. This collaboration did not stop there. Gilead appears to be a regular financier at the University of Zurich, as indicated in a 2019 scientific paper on AIDS, published in the journal Nature. This does not mean that Ruschitzka knowingly lied in the study. But it is fair to point out that he belongs to a Gilead-subsidized entity, and Gilead is openly fighting against the use of hydroxychloroquine. Furthermore, he is not the only one who can be suspected of conflict of interest in the article published by The Lancet.”