PARIS - Fellow scientists question his findings, but an unlikely mix of supporters — from French yellow vest protesters to U.S. President Donald Trump — are cheering their promise.
Last month, French immunology specialist Didier Raoult had no Twitter account. Now, he has more than a quarter-million followers, and counting.
The 68-year-old French physician has emerged as one of France’s most publicized and polarizing figures of these coronavirus times, since claiming his research shows an anti-malarial drug can help fight COVID-19.
Outside the Marseille university hospital where he works, a long line of sick and frightened people waits to be tested each day for COVID-19.
The sick may receive a much-hyped experimental treatment — a mix of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and antibiotic azithromycin that have starred in a pair of quick, small-scale studies that Raoult conducted, and were published this month.
Together, the studies show the "efficacy" of the anti-malarial drug in fighting the virus, Raoult and his research team claim, and the synergetic effects of adding the antibiotic.
“He’s a visionary,” Renaud Muselier, head of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region and a friend of Raoult, told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. “That’s what makes his strength today.”
But critics say Raoult’s team did not follow rigorous procedures, had no control group, and drew their results based on too few people, among other failings.
“The methodology is fragile, the results are forced, one doesn’t give people hope based on approximate trials,” Gilles Pialoux, infectious diseases head of Paris-based Tenon Hospital, told BFMTV.
No stranger to controversy
Raoult, who heads the infectious diseases department of La Timone Hospital in Marseille, is no stranger to controversy — or applause. Born in Dakar, Senegal, he dropped out of high school in his junior year and spent a couple of years in the French merchant marines before heading to medical school.
A few years ago, he grew his white-blond hair long — adding a mustache and beard —just to annoy the establishment, he is reported as saying.
His award-winning research includes discovering giant viruses and new bacteria. He has published prodigiously, although his massive output has sparked skepticism about its rigor.
Raoult has also questioned climate change. In January, he initially dismissed the first coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan as overblown.
And while he has been added to the government coronavirus team of health experts, he has reportedly distanced himself from it, failing to attend recent meetings.
“I don’t care what others think of me,” he told La Provence newspaper. “I'm not an outsider. I’m the one who is the most advanced.”
After Raoult’s first coronavirus findings were published mid-March in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, Trump tweeted that the two-drug combination he tested could become “the biggest game changers” in medical history.
France and the United States have since authorized limited, emergency use of hydroxychloroquine and related compound chloroquine in treating the most serious COVID-19 cases. On Monday, the French food safety agency warned of potentially dangerous side effects.
But the public has dismissed such strictures. Pharmacies report a rush for Plaquenil, the brand name of hydroxychloroquine, which has worried lupus and other patients who have long depended on it.
New and larger experimental studies are now under way in Europe and the United States to see if Raoult’s findings, among others, can be replicated on a bigger scale.
In the meantime, he has vaulted to near rock star status. His wide spectrum of supporters includes controversial French comedian Dieudonne, far-right adherents, ex-soccer champion Eric Cantona and several prominent politicians, some of whom took Raoult’s experimental treatment after contracting COVID-19.
“Bravo to @raoult didier and his team,” tweeted Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi. “I’m proud to have fought beside him.”
But a raft of medical experts is less enthusiastic, questioning the credibility of Raoult’s studies, the first of which involved just 20 patients.
“No, ‘not huge’ I’m afraid,” tweeted Francois Balloux of University College in London, in response to the results of Raoult’s second study involving 80 patients.
Released Friday, the study claimed that most of the patients treated with the combination drug had favorable outcomes.
But Balloux noted that those who had tested presented mild symptoms of coronavirus and likely would have recovered anyway.