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Didier Raoult: the man whose Covid ‘cure’ went viral Is the French microbiologist a scientific superhero, or medical charlatan?

Didier Raoult in his office. Credit: GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

Didier Raoult in his office. Credit: GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images


April 24, 2020   6 mins

Not many virologists go viral. Nor do many microbiologists generate bacteriological numbers of followers on YouTube and Twitter.

But Professor Didier Raoult is not an ordinary microbiologist — as he would be the first to tell you. He is an iconoclast and an enemy of the French medical establishment. He has long white hair and a pointed white beard, which makes him look like a fictional wizard — perhaps more of a querulous Gandalf than a genial Dumbledore.

In the last two months, Raoult, 68, has become both famous and infamous. He has, he says, discovered a “game-changing”, cheap, off-the-shelf cure for Covid-19 — namely hydroxychloroquine, a common treatment for malaria.

His claims created a pandemic of controversy and conspiracy theories on both sides of the Atlantic. They have brought angry rebuttals from the medical establishment in France and beyond.

In the last few days, the Raoult game-changer appears to have fallen to bits. An extensive series of tests in American veteran hospitals concluded that, if anything, hydroxychloroquine increased the death rate among acute sufferers from Covid-19. A US state health agency warned that the two drug combination used by the professor could be “toxic”.

*

Didier Raoult is no quack. He is an eminent scientist with a long track-record of brilliant, original research, including his groundbreaking work on giant viruses (or ‘giruses’).

Some of his claims and methods have long been disputed. He is a climate change sceptic. He originally dismissed the Covid pandemic as a “crazy” fuss over the “death of three Chinese”.  He rejects the standard, systematic methods of medical research — such as the use of control groups and placebos — as the plodding obsession of “bureaucrats” and “mathematicians”.

So if not a charlatan, is he a genius? President Emmanuel Macron visited him a few days ago in his medical institute in Marseille and declared him to be a “very great scientist”. Professor Raoult agrees. Many of his colleagues, though acknowledging his brilliance, believe that Raoult lost the plot some years ago.

They point to the fact that he has put his name to 3,062 research papers, including more than 30 since the beginning of this year — way beyond what most scientists claim in a lifetime. “How can anyone believe that a scientist can really take part in work leading to one publication a week?” asks the biologist and investigative writer, Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis.

Nonetheless, Raoult has become in recent weeks a scientific super-hero for the young — the subject of memes and running anti-establishment jokes on French social media. He has also become an inspiration for the political Right on both sides of the Atlantic.

In France, the cautious official response to his ideas was used as a stick to beat the Emmanuel Macron and Edouard Philippe government for its allegedly “over-centralised” and “bureaucratic” response to the pandemic.

In America, the Marseille professor’s sweeping claims were taken up by Donald Trump and the alt-Right as proof that other approaches to Covid-19 — such as social and economic lockdowns and careful research — were the product of ‘Left-wing’ rather than ‘can-do’ thinking.

Raoult is also a favourite of conspiracy theorists. Official dismissals, or qualifications, of his claims are seized upon as proof that the pharmaceutical industry and its political lackeys are trying to bury a cheap, easy solution to the Covid-19 crisis. In other words, Big Pharma wants to make Big Bucks from Covid-19. Possibly they invented it.

Raoult’s claims — first posted by him not in a scientific journal but on YouTube in February — have not been dismissed out of hand by fellow scientists. Many other research programmes, 18 in France alone, are looking at the possible beneficial effects of hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19.

However, colleagues, and rivals, point out that the two sets of results published last month by Raoult and his Institut Hospitalo-universitaire Méditerranée Infection fall far below the usual standards of medical or scientific proof.

The first results, published on 20 March, covered only 30 patients and omitted one who died and three others who were admitted to intensive care. A second, published seven days later, covered 80 patients, of which 65 (or 81%), it was claimed, “got better and left hospital within five days”.

Critics pointed out that patients had been carefully selected and included some who exhibited few symptoms of Covid-19 or no symptoms at all. The eminent French geneticist Axel Kahn commented:

“Very interesting. Data from 600,000 cases shows that 85% are benign and 15% are severe, including 5% who need intensive care. Those are the same figures we find in the 80 people treated at IHU Marseille.”

In other words, the evidence of Raoult’s own study suggests that the effect of Hydroxychloroquine is
zero.

*

So who is Didier Raoult?

He was born in 1952 in Dakar in Senegal, still then a French colony. His father was an army doctor and his mother was a nurse.

As a teenager, he was a poor student who only just passed his baccalaureate after leaving school early to study at home. He took the ill-considered, literary ‘option L’ of the ‘bac’ rather than mathematical or scientific ‘option S’ — the shame of all shames for a French medical family.

The young Raoult spent several chaotic (or formative) years back-packing and working on merchant ships before his father dragooned him into medical school in Marseilles. He once told the city’s newspaper, Le Provençal:  “All the doctors that I knew here wanted to be the best in Marseilles. I wanted to be champion of the world, based in Marseilles.”

Arguably, he succeeded. In 2003, in collaboration with the geneticist, Jean-Michel Claverie, he made a breakthrough in the study of giant viruses — viruses as large as bacteria — which contain many genes not found in other forms of life. His work in the 1980s on rickettsia (a category of bacteria), had already won him international recognition

Claverie recalled: “We worked together. We published many fine things together. Then we fell out in a big way. Now we’re rivals but I still have enormous respect for him as a scientist.”

Raoult, who insisted on remaining in Marseilles, became an outspoken critic of the Paris medical establishment, which he regards as plodding, uptight and bureaucratic. He has become a hero to a rebellious city which loves to boost the claims of its one literary success (Marcel Pagnol) and its many footballing geniuses (from Eric Cantona to Zinedine Zidane).

Didier Raoult is, in fact, a kind of medical-scientific Eric Cantona. His behaviour, and appearance, have become increasingly unconventional. Asked why he wears his hair long and a pointy beard, he replied: “Because it pisses them off.”

“Them” is, without a doubt, the Paris medical and scientific world.

His obsession with the glacial progress of traditional medical research — the use of control groups, placebos, peer reviews — may largely explain his decision to stake his reputation on hydroxychloroquine. Raoult argues that, faced with a deadly new disease, medicine and science have no right to cling to their cautious, academic behaviour patterns.

In an op-ed article for Le Monde last month, he referred to the ‘parachute paradigm’ — a jokey concept invented by two young British scientists in 2003 as a challenge to traditional medical research. (Briefly: to test the effectiveness of a new kind of parachute, researchers ask 100 people to jump out of an aeroplane. 50 of them wear parachutes; 50 wear empty backpacks.)

Raoult argues that promising off-the-shelf drugs should be extensively used in a medical crisis, like Ebola or Covid-19, not tested endlessly in parachute paradigm studies in which placebos are given to very sick people. “It is time,” he wrote in Le Monde, “for doctors to reclaim their place alongside philosophers and people with a humanist or religious cast of mind and get rid of all the mathematicians and weather-forecasters who have invaded our field.”

He hints in the same article that the traditional caution of researchers is influenced by the lobbying of Big Pharma. Other researchers react furiously to such claims. They point to the terrible history of thalidomide, the drug which caused foetal deformations in the 1950s and 1960s, and more recently to Mediator, a proprietary drug sold as a slimming cure in France, which has been blamed for hundreds of deaths. The first moral duty of doctors, they say, is “not to make things worse”.

Raoult administers hydroxychloroquine in combination with a pulmonary antibiotic called azithromycine. Anxious to try his miracle cure, queues of people have formed outside his institute. Local politicians have spoken about him in almost apocalyptic terms as a great scientist and a great Frenchman.

Renaud Muselier, centre-Right President of the Provence-Cote d’Azur Region, himself a doctor and former student of Raoult, said: “He’s a genius. He is inspired by the idea of the greatness of France — the liberty of expression, liberty of thought. His vision is very Gaullist.”

Others complain that Raoult, with his wild claims, has single-handledly destroyed confidence in the French government and French medical establishment and their handling of the Covid crisis.

“Raoul smashed national unity by taking up such a rebellious point of view,” one senior member of Macron’s La RĂ©publique En Marche (LREM) party said. “It was a great exploit. Single-handedly, he discredited everything that politicians and scientists were saying.”

That may be a little over the top. The French have less reason than the British or Americans to criticise their government’s performance but they do have some cause for complaint and they are congenitally quick to complain.

*

The person who is likely to emerge with the most discredit from the chloroquine craze is Didier Raoult. He risks being seen not as Dumbledore or as Gandalf, but as the Wizard of Oz.

Of the 18 independent French tests of the drug, none has yet found any significant effect on patients suffering from Covid-19. The US veterans’ hospital tests, the largest so far, published this week, found that there were slightly more deaths amongst patients who took the drug than those who did not.

Professor Raoult has yet to comment. He is perhaps looking for a parachute.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

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Robert Harneis
Robert Harneis
4 years ago

It is not true, as the article states, that Raoult has not replied to the US so called trial. He has and said it was fake news and why – https://www.mediterranee-in
His position on trials during a sudden pandemic are clear and logical. He points out that it is a waste of time trialing a new medicine for this purpose because the results on effectiveness and safety cannot be known until long after the pandemic is over. Secondly he says that in a sudden pandemic with a new virus you have to look at the existing research amongst old and well tried medicines. This is what he did Hydroxychloroquineis one of the most used medicines in the world since the 1940s. Lichfield fails to point out that it was available over the counter in France for 30 years and then suddenly two months ago put on the poisons list. The hue and cry about possible side effects is an obvious red herring put up by people who resent Raoult’s independence and success. It may well be inspired by big-pharma as well. The comparison with mediator and thalidomide is ridiculous.
The suggestion that French authorities have done better than the British is ludicrous. They had 1.4 billion masks but got rid of them in 2016. They allowed elections and then cancelled them half way through. They failed to close the Italian frontier for European ideological reasons. They finally agreed to test Raoult’s treatment but did so only for serious cases late in the illness, when Raoult has made it clear that for it to work, it must be used early on. The British authorities should take Raoult’s work seriously, instead of leaving people to sink or swim on their own.
Raoult is 68, he is not trying to build an international reputation. He already has one.

favourafolabi
favourafolabi
4 years ago

the claims by the so-called US team of EXPERTS was a weak and shallow one – they did not follow the prescribed manner that Raoult put out there in using HCX with AZT and Zinc especially at the earlier stages of the infections.

They are way too interested in killing any idea that is different from waiting for the Bill Gates typed of vaccines that must be ready in 12-18 months just as certain doctors in the same USA continue to use this same Raoult prescribed formula on patients with recorded numbers of success.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Another very biased, anti0UK/US/Trump piece from Lichfield.

I think the jury is still out on hydrocychloroquine. It is being widely used in US hospitals, with one Democrat official stating that it saved her life. It seems that it needs to be used alongside the zinc treatment, and it needs to be applied in the earlier stages of illness. But nobody seems to know at this point.

There are suggestions that a lot of people – notably big pharma and their allies such in the media and politics – are opposed to it because it is a cheap drug whose patent has expired. Never forget the extent to which big pharma funds the Democrats, the Republicans, and the media.

Mark M
Mark M
4 years ago

When I started reading UnHerd I thought it might be an informative site… Now I see that like so many other news outlets it is merely a place for journalists to express their bias.

The journalist points out the valid issues with Raoult’s studies, but does not point out the equally valid issues with the Veteran study.

This is likely for one of two reasons: (1) the journalist is biased and does not wish to make a balanced comparison, or (2) the journalist has limited scientific knowledge and is talking from ignorance.

The key issue with the Veteran study is that it is a retrospective analysis, which means the clinical populations are not homogeneous in severity of disease. Search Medcram Update 60 to hear commentary from someone who understands the science.

The Veteran study (which is used against Raoult) is not a placebo-controlled study. But not using the placebo-controlled method is exactly the criticism used against Raoult! Do you see the logical issue here with the journalist’s argument?

It’s probably not worth my time to be on this site. I’m agnostic on Raoult, but I am agitated by reading something written with logical issues, and at multiple points asserts an unrelated political viewpoint. I don’t know why we get our information from journalists. Does this journalist have a science background? Why should I listen to him? What are his credentials?

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
4 years ago

Modern devotion to adaptations and adjustments to the scientific method have been embraced because they allow for acceptance of pre-conceived results. Anyone who stands in the way of this doctrine must be castigated and then dismembered. In the case of Dr. Raoult, the article clearly points to anything that he may pursue in life as being a target for the global media and academic orthodoxy. He is described as a Climate Change skeptic and therefore he cannot be allowed the oxygen of recognition for any reason whatsoever…..about any subject matter.

Mark M
Mark M
4 years ago

Trump is bad! Trump supports chloroquine! Therefore chloroquine is bad!

The article points out the valid issues with Raoult’s studies, but does not point out the equally valid issues with the Veteran study.

The key issue with the Veteran study is that it is a retrospective analysis, which means the clinical populations are not homogeneous in severity of disease. It also ignores the important interaction between chloroquine and zinc.

The Veteran study (which is used against Raoult) is not a placebo-controlled study. However, not using the placebo-controlled method is exactly the criticism levelled against Raoult! Do you see the logical problem here?

ma.dowrick
ma.dowrick
3 years ago

Why is the preventive treatment for Covid, Quercetin and zinc and the early outpatient treatment for COVID, with hcq, zinc and azithromycin being ignored? Thousands have used both treatments with tremendous success. Many, many doctors either take it themselves or prescribe to their patients. Cost….$20. Remsedivir cost $3,200 per dose. The VA study used hcq on patients who were severely ill. Much too late. The Recovery study administered lethal doses of hcq again too late in the illness. Why won’t any media sights provide a fair and balanced approach/discussion to the use of Quercetin, zinc, hcq and azithromycin for the prevention/early treatment of COVID. It is beyond belief this simple, cheap remedy is available and being completely ignored by WHO, and medical advisors in Europe and the USA.

Daren Austin
Daren Austin
4 years ago

There is a reason that drugs are subject to CONFIRMATORY trials. His proof of concept study has identified a possible effect in a small population. The VA study was a summary of uncontrolled case reports. And the parachute analogy is nonsense. We treat patients with standard of care, in some instances it is ethical to administer placebo, sometimes only for a short period. In others we do not (see oncology). The correct analogy would be a rucksack with an old-fashioned round army parachute, or a more modern flying wing type.

Natalija Svobodné
Natalija Svobodné
4 years ago

Anyone can write thousands of papers! It’s getting work peer reviewed and published in credible publications that is difficult! People that skip that process are not willing to put their ideas to scrutiny by other experts! Skipping that process makes work virtually worthless, if not dangerous! Smart people can be wrong and have biases just like anyone else!

Dave Smith
Dave Smith
4 years ago

I am not qualified to have much of an opinion but one thing strikes me. That is that we do not treat the virus until it gets serious with us. There is surely a case for early treatment once the diagnosis has been confirmed. How we treat it is up to the doctors. I believe in the 1918 epidemic treatment was started early as once it progressed there was little to be done as antibiotics had not been discovered .

john.hurley2018
john.hurley2018
4 years ago

Meanwhile (quietly and painstakingly) trials are underway to test a vaccine for the MAP bacteria in the assumption it causes Crohns disease. http://www.crohnsmapvaccine

ohravenousone
ohravenousone
4 years ago

I have been trying to get someones attention. Hydrogen peroxide infusions. A method that is cheap and totally non toxic but incredibly invasive, not as bad as intubation though. Peroxide is only water with an extra oxygen molecule attached. NON poisonous. 2 of my friends are treated by tanking their blood, treating with hydrogen peroxide and putting it back. I am posting it all over the net. Even if you put 3 drops in your drinking water you woill be ok. DO NOT DRINK STRAIGHT! It will make you projectile vomit and it is disturbingly foamy. It is the method we use to make animals vomit if they eat something evil to them.

sipu261988
sipu261988
4 years ago

Great Content, Superhigh-quality and keep it up 🙂

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Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago

Doesn’t believe in the scientific method = pseudoscientist.
Next!

Tony Edwards
Tony Edwards
4 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I tried to buy iodine from a UK chemist none of them sell it had to buy online a dispenser told me ‘it is not not patented we offer patented alternatives’ I asked ‘follow the money? exactly they replied with a smile. Chris Woollams cancerative.com has some insightful qualified thoughts on the subject,not that anyone really seems to know anything for certain about this for sure, I eating lots of foods with anti viral effects including raw garlic which certainly helps with social distancing 🙂