France: The maverick behind the chloroquine craze
Didier Raoult has suddenly “become France’s best-known, and most controversial, doctor,” said Peter Conradi in The Times (U.K.). A microbiologist with a talent for self-promotion, Raoult ignited a global run on the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine in March by announcing the coronavirus “endgame” in a YouTube video. By combining the antimalarial with the antibiotic azithromycin, Raoult said, he’d accelerated the recovery of a group of Covid-19 patients at the infectious and tropical diseases institute he heads in Marseille. News of the supposed breakthrough quickly went viral, and U.S. President Donald Trump was soon touting chloroquine as a “gift from God.” When French scientists expressed skepticism at Raoult’s non-peer-reviewed claims, he struck back in “a flurry of interviews.” The 68-year-old doctor also “managed to find time to put out a short book, Epidemics: Real Dangers and False Alarms.” Yet Raoult has stopped attending meetings of President Emmanuel Macron’s science council on the virus, saying, “I’m too busy to spend two hours listening to this rubbish.”
His egotism is earned, said Marie-Cécile Renault in Le Figaro (France). With his long gray hair and shaggy beard, Raoult looks like “a rocker from the ’68 generation,” but he is one of the country’s most respected researchers. The recipient of the 2010 Grand Prize from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, he has made numerous discoveries related to so-called giant viruses and even given his name to two bacteria. Peers describe him as a genius, but also as a megalomaniac and a contrarian—he is a self-declared climate-change skeptic. Between 1996 and 2011, he put out six scientific studies a month, which seems unfeasibly high; many appeared in fringe publications.
Unfortunately, there’s no evidence yet that his miracle cure works, said Chloé Savellon in PourquoiDocteur.fr. The first trial was flawed in several ways, including that the 24 patients involved showed only mild symptoms when they began treatment. In his second trial of 80 patients—half of whom were under age 52—12 needed oxygen, three needed intensive care, and one, age 86, died. Those results were almost identical to what you’d expect among a group of patients who didn’t receive “the famed new treatment.” Neither of Raoult’s studies used a control group.
But this being France, there’s “an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory” or two to explain the sidelining of Raoult, said Damien Leloup and Lucie Soullier in Le Monde. Some online cranks insist his breakthrough is being suppressed because chloroquine is a cheap, established drug, and so Jewish-owned Big Pharma can’t profit from it. Another theory holds that the conspirators are Jews within the French government, namely former Health Minister Agnès Buzyn and her husband, immunologist Yves Lévy. Their dastardly plot involves killing off the elderly to save on pensions. Gilbert Collard, a politician with the far-right National Rally, promoted this theory on YouTube and quickly clocked more than 250,000 views. When people are scared, they want quick answers, and they are “quick to blame” those who advocate caution. ■