Over the weekend, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, Novartis (NVS 1.08%) reached an agreement with U.S. regulators to begin treating hospitalized coronavirus patients with hydroxychloroquine. The company will run a 440-patient study to see if the decades-old antimalarial drug can add COVID-19 to its list of non-malarial indications. 

Several academic institutions and the National Institutes of Health have already begun studies of hydroxychloroquine, a synthetic analog of quinine that has shown some evidence of efficacy against COVID-19. But Novartis, whose generic drug segment, Sandoz, produces hydroxychloroquine, will become the first big pharma to treat coronavirus patients with the drug in a phase 3 clinical trial.

Physician in an intensive care unit with a clipboard.

Image source: Getty Images.

Patients in the Novartis trial will either receive hydroxychloroquine or  a placebo. If its study produces positive results, the company will also support the global development of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment by providing other researchers up to 130 million free tablets for use in their own clinical trials.

Temper your expectations

Hydroxychloroquine and other quinine derivatives were originally found to be useful as treatments for malaria, which is caused by a parasite, but in recent years, researchers have uncovered new uses for them. Today, quinine-based treatments are also used to manage some autoimmune diseases and in the treatment of cancer.

Unfortunately, hydroxychloroquine probably isn't the magic bullet for COVID-19 that the world is searching for. Malaria is caused by a plasmodium parasite that breeds in the bloodstream, not a virus that flourishes in the respiratory system. While hydroxychloroquine and other quinine analogs have shown some broad-spectrum antiviral activity, they probably do more to reduce the risk of secondary infections for COVID-19 patients than to directly inhibit SARS-CoV-2 from reproducing.