Antihéros

You may have heard the name of Professor Didier Raoult in the media of late. He is an avid proponent of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.

What you probably don’t know about the eminent Dr. Raoult is that he epitomizes the French love of the anti-hero: a renegade who doesn’t pander to authority, a medical doctor, a microbiologist and an eminent researcher who is among the most respected in his field. Raoult is also, most importantly to the French, a free thinker and forthright speaker who says his truth without compromise. That truth has been rather uncomfortable for many people over the past months of pandemic. It has divided the country along with the international scientific community.

The fact that he wears his hair long, collects art and generally comes across as an ageing ‘baba cool’ (the French expression for hippie), only adds to his charm. Along with the fact that he was born in Africa and hails from Marseille, a city known for being loved or hated in equal measure.

I had every reason to dislike him. Already early in the confinement the media were hinting that Raoult’s claims for a cure for COVID-19 were overstated, that there was little evidence to support his approach and that — most dubious of all — President Trump was touting it as a miracle cure. I was sceptical at best about the fellow. He sounded like what I hate most: a jumped-up counter-culture figure with a huge ego.

“I’m against information before knowledge. Our work is to obtain knowledge.”

Then I saw him being interviewed. In French. And my preconceived dislike evaporated. Didier Raoult speaks with surprising humanity and humility, advances arguments that are sound and does it all while expressing equal doses of conviction and reasonable doubt. Here is a thinker, a doer and someone who embraces his role as a clinician. That is, a doctor having direct contact with patients rather than being involved with theoretical or laboratory studies.

This is how he has defended his refusal to conduct a formal clinical trial during a pandemic. I must admit I sympathize with this view. It seems rather harsh to ask people who are diagnosed with a life-threatening viral disease to accept the risk of being randomized on a placebo rather than receiving the drug that could save their lives. Of course such trials are essential to medical science and the very foundation of our approach to safely prescribing drugs. But Raoult’s point is this: you cannot compare chloroquine, a drug that has been through clinical approval and prescribed as a treatment for multiple diseases for many years, to an as-yet unapproved drug that has yet to be found safe in humans.

All of which has led to Professor Raoult (‘professor’ in French trumps ‘doctor’ as a title) being elevated to the level of (anti)hero amongst the French populace. His ideas feed into the strongly held belief that Big Pharma is evil, the government cannot be trusted to tell the truth and that good, old-fashioned remedies will cure most ills.

The fact that recent studies have tended not to support the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 has further divided opinion. Just this week, the government announced it would no longer authorize the prescription of the drug to treat coronavirus. But Raoult’s supporters believe him when he explains that the so-called studies are not randomized trials but observational, that dosing is an issue and that his protocol, used in his hospital, of treating patients in the early stages of the disease (and not when they have already developed a serious case), with hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin, along with zinc, works.

Here’s an interview (from mid-April). Long, and not great quality but worth a watch if you’re interested. Note: he speaks English like a Frenchman!

Time will tell if he is right. In the meantime, if you were to ask the average French person on the street who they would trust to treat them if they were to catch the virus, you know the answer.

Who would you trust?

19 thoughts on “Antihéros

  1. In the beginning, when I didn’t know the “government” wanted to implement the confinment which I knew would lead the majority (the non wealthy) to misery and probably ultra violence . Before the confinment I was repeating, writing, that the consequences of such a lockdown would be 1000 times more terrible than the disease . So I received Raoult’s treatment as a Heaven’s gift that would save us from civil war . I documented on his past,his fame among his peers, learnt that he was specialized in breathing affections ( hence his knowledge about azithromycin), his travels and researches abroad, and I became sure he was a serious scientist, not the kind who claims bullshit . I know, we all know, people who’ve been healed by his treatment . This treatment is not 100% guaranteed, but which one is ? And we had nothing else .

    Then I understood that the “government” did not want to avoid the general lockdown. The main medias started spreading rumours of obstacles : it’s dangerous for some people with heart weaknesses, some people autotreated themselves and took too much so they died … A ton of bullshit that can be said about any medicine (what about cancer treatment ?) . In the very beginning in my incredible naivety I thought the government would mission several hospitals to make official tests, 2 or 3 weeks, then requisition some labs to produce “en masse” the pills, send the correct protocol to all generalist doctors in the country, and within one month all this would be over with a certain number of deaths of course .

    But no . By then I understood that the plan of the real power, the masters of finance, was to destroy a system of society . Wondering why I discovered in “Le Monde” what the economist Daniel Cohen was saying : this virus was the pretext to accomplish what the real power had been waiting for a while, “l’accélération d’un nouveau capitalisme, le capitalisme numérique » . No matter if the majority will never find a work in this future system, no matter if the social safety nets become unable to follow, BTW no matter if, before a costy vaccine be found, thousands of poor people die of the virus (after all that’s what the power does with every war) .
    So now each time I’m obliged to mention Macron or any of his henchmen I can’t use another word than “the Criminals” . But well, this is also the case in any country, we all undergo the same soulless power .

    1. Interesting analysis, as usual Phil. While I can’t say I fully agree with the evil intention (no plan for me is obvious and I am still ‘naive’ enough to believe that our leaders mean to do well despite their mistakes), I do see truth in the statement that forces of change are leading us away from our current system. Perhaps that means we will move towards a form of ‘digital capitalism’ but in my view it can only be an intermediary step — the pandemic has drawn attention to the fact that we need functioning social safety nets now more than ever. I do agree that the cost of lives and livelihoods is too high for the benefits of confinement, and certainly that it has suited certain political ends to have people preoccupied with staying safe at home rather than carrying on as usual.

  2. The NY Times had a good profile of him: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/magazine/didier-raoult-hydroxychloroquine.html?searchResultPosition=1
    the thing is his study was small and it’s hard to prove the hydroxychloroquine made a difference or whether the testees were among the vast majority of people who recover quickly or who barely get sick. I took chloroquine for a few years for malaria; it is widely used. but does it work for Covid? not proven.

      1. You are right, of course. But that is nonetheless the protocol that appears to do the job. Not sure why the antibiotic but perhaps to stave off the secondary respiratory infections that are often associated? In any case, the whole problem is that this is a specific protocol of treatment, given early in the disease, and it’s being compared to what’s not comparable. In other words, the studies are comparing apples to oranges and are therefore not a good indication of the real potential of this treatment. Agree that hydroxychloroquine has not been approved in this indication (COVID-19) but ‘dans le doute’ and when you don’t have much else to offer patients, it seems reasonable to try it. Under appropriate medical supervision to control for heart problems, etc.

      2. Mid-March I started being interested by this question . Raoult had used azithromycin in Asia in the past against pulmonary problems and had discovered that for unknown reasons this antibiotic had some mysterious “antiviral” properties . He could not explain this but azithromycin seemed to have repulsive effects against viruses in general . That’s why he had the idea of associating it with hydrochloroquine.
        By this time I thought that the government would in emergency mandate different hospitals to scientifically test Raoult’s protocol, since we had nothing else . But nothing came, only a will to bury this possibility .

        I don’t think you people are in touch with many poor, I am . All the people who work alone as small craftsmen, workers in tiny “enterprises” of one or two people, holders of little cheap bars, artists, people who survive on ridiculous social helps, etc… The list of people who were on the edge of misery BEFORE and who are now totally miserable without any hope is huge .
        Many already poor were unable to pay their rent in the last month, same for their loans, and in the same time we could learn that the CAC 40 benefits were over the top, that the “government” had given billions to help the banks, etc … This society is sickening . No wonder there have been several French revolutions .

        You know I spent time among the Hopis and Navajos, they are my brothers in soul . There is a traditional Navajo saying “There is not such a thing as a rich Navajo, because if he is rich it means he took things he does not need but that other brothers miss” . I have the impression that the guy Jesus agreed with that . I do too, like a good part of the real French .

      3. I think this whole pandemic has made the cracks in the foundation of our society a lot more evident. And I know the poor are there, even if it’s not always easy to see them for those of us who are able to make ends meet. Even in nearby well-heeled Geneva there were long line-ups last week for an exceptional distribution by food banks. It’s a wake up call that something needs to change.

  3. I really don’t know what I would do and who I would trust. From a hospital point of view, the lockdown has sort of worked as the intensive care units in France did not get totally innundated with covid-19 cases, such as happened in Italy. People still died though, and of course the economy has suffered dreadfully. Would more people have died without the lockdown? Would the economy have suffered less without the lockdown? When I look at the behaviour of people today in the shops or in the markets, I wonder – a large proportion do not appear to have heard of the need of social distancing, and few are wearing masks… Where do we go from here once the lockdown is completely relaxed?? I only have questions and doubts at this point …

    1. I hear you! It’s a strange time of contrasting and often conflicting information and feelings. Undoubtedly the lockdown saved some lives while destroying others. Yet the balance was already so fragile — I think that is what is most terrifying to me. Our hospitals, indeed so much of the economy, is hanging on by a thread. Yet people seem so oblivious, as if they can’t believe the risk is real. It is unsettling to say the least. I hope you stay well and that tourism in your region is not too hard hit!

      1. Tourism is forecast to be down something like 80% this year, and next year will likely be down too. It’s one of these things, no doubt things will bounce back in the long run! 🙂

      2. 80% is massive! Perhaps the fact that French people (and also neighbouring Europeans like Swiss, Italians and Germans) will want to holiday close to home during the summer will help mitigate the lack of international tourists? Hope it bounces back as the pandemic gradually fades out.

  4. Well, as the daughter of two scientists, I lie firmly in the camp of scientific consensus. From my understanding, Raoult’s treating his patients was in no way a study. And you can’t get scientific answers without a scientific study. Bias is too easy to ignore. Unfortunately journalistic reporting on scientific studies is usually extremely flawed and so the information we get doesn’t help us understand the problems.

    Even medicines and treatments that we’ve been using for decades can be revealed as flawed or biased with new evidence. It’s much more complicated than media reporting allows most people to understand.

    I do wonder what all Raoult’s fans think of his opinions on climate change. Granted, he has no qualifications on climate change as opposed to medical treatment of respiratory disease.

    1. He is clearly a controversial figure, and I’ve posted before about the French love of ‘polémique’. Science is essential to good medicine, of course, and you are right: he has not conducted a real clinical trial. Still, I would not entirely discount the value of his knowledge and experience with patients in the clinic. As for climate change, his views are something else entirely and with which I am not familiar at all. A quick google reveals he is critical of the science and prediction models rather than being a denier of climate change.

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