CLAIM: Pakistan is manufacturing a cure for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus and exporting it to China in large quantities.

FACT: Although some researchers believe a drug called Chloroquine Phosphate could help treat the disease, on 20 February 2020, Dr. Janet Diaz, lead for clinical case management in the WHO Health Emergencies program, said there is currently “no proof” that it is effective.

According to viral news stories published by local news and entertainment websites, a cure for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is being manufactured in Pakistan for export to China. The articles identify the cure as Chloroquine Phosphate, a drug previously used to treat Malaria. Citing an earlier news report from China Economic Net, it was reported that more than 300,000 tablets of Chloroquine Phosphate were exported by Bayer International from one of its subsidiaries in Pakistan after receiving a request from the Guangdong provincial government. 

The oldest news report featuring the claim in the Pakistani media was published on 20 February 2020 by Express Tribune. The article originally appeared in the aforementioned China Economic Net story, the source for most of these reports. This article itself references another China Economic Net news story from 20 February 2020, with the headline “Pakistan has effective drug for COVID-19, Over 300,000 pieces exported to China”. However, searches for keywords included in the headline of this article on popular search engines and the internal website search tool do not yield any results. The oldest mention of the 300,000 pieces being exported to China is from a 20 February story on, referencing the the drug trials being conducted on Chloroquines effectiveness for treating COVID-19 in Beijing and Guangdong as the reason why the Guangdong provincial government is importing these drugs, which was left out of the later China Economic Net story and subsequent stories in the Pakistani media.

It was reported on 15 February 2020 that Zhang Xinmin, director of the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development under the Ministry of Science and Technology said Chinese researchers have narrowed their attention to a few existing drugs including Chloroquine Phosphate after multiple rounds of screening.

Dr. Janet Diaz, lead for clinical case management in the WHO Health Emergencies program, said on 20 February 2020 that [although] some scientists had claimed that anti-malaria drug Chloroquine could be a potential treatment for the new virus, but currently, there is “no proof” that it is effective, 

China’s national news service confirmed on 22 February that Chloroquine Phosphate had been used to treat only 135 cases in Beijing and Guangdong province.

To understand the story better, Soch spoke to Dr Faisal Mahmood, associate professor infectious diseases at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi.

He said, “In the lab, in a test tube, chloroquine is able to inhibit growth of some viruses including the new SARS CoV-2 virus. However just because a drug works in a test tube does not mean that it will lead to patients getting better faster. The amount of the medication that you need to kill the virus may be higher than the toxic dose of the drug or the drug may not even be able to physically get to where it needs to.”

When asked if it is accurate to call this medicine a cure, Dr Mahmood said, “While the first step in finding medications is to test it in the lab, perhaps the more important part of this process is to see if patients who are given the medications actually get better compared to those who did not get the medicine (also called a drug trial). To this effect drug trials are underway in China to examine the effect of chloroquine on patients infected with the virus. However to date these have not been published and therefore it is too early to say if this indeed will work. It is a promising approach but too premature to tout it as a cure.”

Chloroquine Phosphate has also been hailed as a wonder drug in misleading viral stories across the world, including one claiming it cured more than 12 thousand people of the virus in China. This demonstrates the propensity for scientific research to be sensationalized into misleading and harmful news coverage, highlighting the importance of fact checking scientific claims in the media.

COVID-19, is a respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, common symptoms of the disease are coughing, fever and breathing difficulties. 

Summary: Some researchers believe Chloroquine Phosphate may be useful in treating COVID-19. It has been reported that trials are underway in China, for which the drug is being imported from Pakistan. Experts at the World Health Organization have clarified that there is not enough evidence for it to be considered an effective treatment yet. It is misleading to refer to the drug as a “cure.”

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