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Background Hydroxychloroquine has been shown to inhibit severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in vitro, but early clinical studies found no benefit treating patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). We set out to evaluate the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine for prevention, as opposed to treatment, of COVID-19 mortality. Methods We pre-specified and conducted an observational, population-based cohort study using national primary care data and linked death registrations in the OpenSAFELY platform, representing 40% of the general population in England. We used Cox regression to estimate the association between ongoing routine hydroxychloroquine use prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in England and risk of COVID-19 mortality among people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Model adjustment was informed by a directed acyclic graph. Results Of 194,637 patients with RA or SLE, 30,569 (15.7%) received ≥ 2 prescriptions of hydroxychloroquine in the six months prior to 1 March 2020. Between 1 March 2020 and 13 July 2020, there were 547 COVID-19 deaths, 70 among hydroxychloroquine users. Estimated standardised cumulative COVID-19 mortality was 0.23% (95% CI 0.18–0.29) among users and 0.22% (95% CI 0.20–0.25) among non-users; an absolute difference of 0.008% (95% CI –0.051-0.066). After accounting for age, sex, ethnicity, use of other immunuosuppressives, and geographic region, no association with COVID-19 mortality was observed (HR 1.03, 95% CI 0.80–1.33). We found no evidence of interactions with age or other immunosuppressives. Quantitative bias analyses indicated observed associations were robust to missing information regarding additional biologic treatments for rheumatological disease. We observed similar associations with the negative control outcome of non-COVID-19 mortality. Conclusion We found no evidence of a difference in COVID-19 mortality among patients who received hydroxychloroquine for treatment of rheumatological disease prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in England. Research in context Evidence before this study Published trials and observational studies to date have shown no evidence of benefit of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for hospitalised patients who already have COVID-19. A separate question remains: whether routine ongoing use of hydroxychloroquine in people without COVID-19 protects against new infections or severe outcomes. We searched MEDLINE/PubMed for pharmacoepidemiological studies evaluating hydroxychloroquine for prevention of severe COVID-19 outcomes. The keywords “hydroxychloroquine AND (COVID OR coronavirus OR SARS-CoV-2) AND (prophyl* OR prevent*) AND (rate OR hazard OR odds OR risk)” were used and results were filtered to articles from the last year with abstracts available. 109 papers were identified for screening; none investigated pre-exposure prophylactic use of hydroxychloroquine for prevention of severe COVID-19 outcomes. Clinical trials of prophylactic use of hydroxychloroquine are ongoing; however, the largest trial does not expect to meet recruitment targets due to “…unjustified extrapolation and exaggerated safety concerns together with intense politicisation and negative publicity.” In the absence of reported clinical trials, evidence can be generated from real-world data to support the need for randomised clinical trials. Added value of this study In this cohort study representing 40% of the population of England, we investigated whether routine use of hydroxychloroquine prior to the COVID-19 outbreak prevented COVID-19 mortality. Using robust pharmacoepidemiological methods, we found no evidence to support a substantial benefit of hydroxychloroquine in preventing COVID-19 mortality. At the same time, we have shown no significant harm, and this generates the equipoise to justify continuing randomised trials. We have demonstrated in this study that it is feasible to address specific hypotheses about medicines in a rapid and transparent manner to inform interim clinical decision making and support the need for large-scale, randomised trial data. Implications of all the available evidence This is the first study to investigate the ongoing routine use of hydroxychloroquine and risk of COVID-19 mortality in a general population. While we found no evidence of any protective benefit, due to the observational nature of the study, residual confounding remains a possibility. Completion of trials for prevention of severe outcomes is warranted, but prior to the completion of these, we found no evidence to support the use of hydroxychloroquine for prevention of COVID-19 mortality.

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