PARIS — Sitting behind his desk in a hospital in the southern French city of Marseille, Didier Raoult has convinced thousands, including the U.S. president, that a common anti-malarial drug can save people infected by COVID-19.
In a few short weeks, the controversial microbiologist has become Frances best-known doctor after announcing the coronavirus “endgame” on Youtube.
He is also a ticking time bomb for the government and health authorities, as his supporters and some high-profile politicians challenge official policy on battling the coronavirus.
“Why dont we use it?” Bruno Retailleau, the head of conservative group Les Républicains in the Senate, asked on France Inter. “It has one advantage: It is not expensive… Is it because Big Pharma labs would like to make money on the back of our fellow citizens?” he added.
The anti-malarial chloroquine and its related compound, hydroxychloroquine, have been the focus of intense debate in France since Raoult, the head of a university hospital institute in Marseille, announced promising results on a small sample of patients in late February.
Since then, people have been queuing outside his hospital to get treatment, despite warnings from the scientific community and the small scale of Raoults trials — the results of which were not peer-reviewed prior to publication.
“What kind of health minister would I be if, on the basis of a single study conducted on 24 people, I told French people to take a medicine that could lead to cardiac complications in some people?” — French Health Minister Olivier Véran
Raoults social media followers — his YouTube updates attract over a million views — express outrage that health authorities are not freely allowing the use of the drug, forcing the government to publicly justify its strict guidelines on chloroquine, which is marketed only as an anti-malarial drug and for specific conditions such as lupus.
“Dr. Raoults study involves 24 people. What kind of health minister would I be if, on the basis of a single study conducted on 24 people, I told French people to take a medicine that could lead to cardiac complications in some people?” said Health Minister Olivier Véran on France 2.
Chloroquine and its compounds have been used to treat COVID-19 patients in several affected countries, including China, but Raoults comments contrast with his peers approach, who have treated it as one of several medications showing potential. Its part of four treatments currently tested in an EU-wide clinical trial called Discovery.
In the U.S., President Donald Trumps push for the decades-old malaria medicine — he vowed to “make that drug available almost immediately” — disrupted public health agencies coronavirus response.
Raoults latest study, published online on Friday, raised a fresh wave of criticism from the scientific community.
Some patients treated with hydroxychloroquine reportedly died of cardiac arrest, according to newspaper Le Point, raising serious concerns about the risks associated with the treatment.
A self-described “maverick” in the medical community, 68-year-old Raoult is a reputed scientist in his microbiology field — noticeably for his work on giant viruses — yet he cuts a controversial figure for his skeptical comments on Darwins law, climate change, some vaccines and even recommendations about exposure to the sun and alcohol consumption.
“I dont care what others think,” he told local newspaper La Provence. “Im not an outsider, Im the one that is the furthest ahead.”
His free spirit attitude and his battles with the Parisian elite have turned him into a media sensation.
“Paris has a sort of 18th century Versailles syndrome. (…) Everybody talks to everybody, recommends each other among friends, its very endogamic,” Raoult told Libération. “The world doesnt work like that anymore.”
Public officials are taking him seriously, up to the highest level.
Raoult was officially a member of the first scientific council set up by French President Emmanuel Macron to advise him on the coronavirus epidemic, although he stopped attending meetings after a disagreement over the level of screening and testing.
“There is no bad blood between Didier Raoult and the Élysée,” a spokesperson for the president told POLITICO, adding that Macron himself associated with him early on within scientific advisory boards to the government.
“I hear impatience,” Véran said during a press conference with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe Saturday. “I am talking regularly to Professor Raoult,” he added, while pointing at the lack of scientific consensus over his results.
The government last week allowed chloroquine to be used under strict medical supervision in hospitals, following the go-ahead from public health watchdog the High Council for Public Health, which said it could be used for the most serious COVID-19 cases after agreement between caregivers.
People queue outside the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Mediterranee Infection, in Marseille, Franceon March 28, 2020 to be screened for COVID-19 | Anne-Christine-Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images
Raoult has some