MONTREAL -- McGill University researchers are asking eligible Quebecers to participate in a clinical trial that will test hydroxychloroquine’s ability to fight the COVID-19 virus.

In the past, the drug has been used to prevent and treat malaria. It’s also often prescribed for other reasons.

However, its use as a treatment for COVID-19 - while recommended by some public figures, such as U.S. President Donald Trump - has been a topic of great controversy in recent weeks.

“(It) found almost a second life as an anti-inflammatory agent used in diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus,” said Dr. Todd Lee, one of the researchers leading the trial at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre. 

“The thought here in why (hydroxychloroquine) garnered a lot of attention for COVID-19,” Lee said, “Is earlier evidence dating back to the SARS outbreak that suggested that chloroquine––of which hydroxychloroquine is a closely-related cousin––may be efficacious at killing the virus or preventing the inflammation associated with infection.” 

The goal of the trial is to see if the drug can prevent people from catching the virus after being exposed to it, or if it can limit the effects of the virus on people who do catch it. The trial originated in the United States, and just recently, a Canadian branch was launched. 

“This drug was chosen because there’s experimental evidence dating back to SARS, there’s plausibility in the lab, the drug is, for the most part, available and can be manufactured in many countries, and has a reasonable side-effect profile,” Lee said. “So we thought it was an interesting subject for early rapid clinical trials, to know where it’s efficacious.”

Researchers hope the trial will prove the drug can stop the virus from causing enough damage to hospitalize people, which would relieve some of the stress the pandemic has caused on the health system.

Lee said the sooner they find participants for the trial, the sooner they’ll start to see results. 

“Our first look at the data pooled with the U.S. data for prevention is happening this week, and there are some pre-specified rules for what would constitute a major success that would require the study to stop,” he said. “We’ll get our first look of that this week.”

To be eligible, participants must have started showing symptoms or have been exposed to the virus in the past three to four days. They’ll be given either the drug or a placebo over five days, and then they’ll be required to fill in online surveys. 

People can look into signing up here.