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?