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HEALTH

French drug watchdog warns of dangerous side effects of coronavirus treatments

France's drug safety agency warned on Monday of potentially serious side effects of treatments being tested against the new coronavirus after the deaths of three people possibly linked to self-medication.

French drug watchdog warns of dangerous side effects of coronavirus treatments
A laboratory operator wearing protective gears runs tests on sample possibly infected with Covid-19 at the Henri Mondor Hospital in Creteil, near Paris. Photo: AFP

Another two dozen patients have reported undesirable side effects after taking Plaquenil – the brand name of hydroxychloroquine – as well as other medicines such as the antiretroviral Kaletra, the agency's head Dominique Martin told AFP.

He said experts were trying to determine whether the drugs were linked to the side effects, with initial conclusions expected by the end of the week.

The drug safety agency (ANSM) began boosting its surveillance two weeks ago of trials of drugs against COVID-19, “in particular when they are used outside of clinical trials of chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, lopinavir/ritonavir (Kaletra), tocilizumab (and) colchicine,” Martin said.

“It's perfectly normal that treatments be tried, given the circumstances, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't observe surveillance… of these substances,” Martin said.

Combining hydroxychloroquine with the antibiotic azithromycin has been in the spotlight since French researcher Didier Raoult published two studies that he said showed the treatment's effectiveness against COVID-19.

READ ALSO:  What is chloroquine and why do some French scientists believe it could treat coronavirus?

The treatment needs “particular attention”, Martin said, because using the two drugs together runs the risk of arrhythmia and could provoke a heart attack.

This was “even more the case with patients suffering from COVID-19” because of metabolic problems associated with the disease, he said.

Follow the latest on the coronavirus situation in France here.

Health Minister Olivier Véran last week opened for giving chloroquine to the most severe coronavirus cases, but only under strict supervision.

Chloroquine is a synthetic form of quinine, which has been used to treat malaria since the 1940s. Hydroxychloroquine shares a similar mechanism of action but is less toxic. 

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HEALTH

Carte vitale: France to adopt a new ‘biometric’ health card

The French parliament has approved a €20 million project to launch a 'biometric' version of the carte vitale health insurance card.

Carte vitale: France to adopt a new 'biometric' health card

As part of the French government’s package of financial aid for the cost-of-living crisis, €20 million will be set set aside to launch a biometric health card, after an amendment proposed by senators was approved.

Right-wing senators made this measure a “condition” of their support for the financial aid package, according to French left-wing daily Libération, and on Thursday the measure was approved by the Assemblée nationale.

While it sounds quite high tech, the idea is relatively simple, according to centre-right MP Thibault Bazin: the carte vitale would be equipped with a chip that “contains physical characteristics of the insured, such as their fingerprints” which would allow healthcare providers to identify them.

The carte vitale is the card that allows anyone registered in the French health system to be reimbursed for medical costs such as doctor’s appointments, medical procedures and prescriptions. The card is linked to the patient’s bank account so that costs are reimbursed directly into the bank account, usually within a couple of days.

READ ALSO How a carte vitale works and how to get one

According to the centre-right Les Républicains group, the reason for having a ‘biometric’ carte vitale is to fight against welfare fraud.

They say this would have two functions; firstly the biometric data would ensure the card could only be used by the holder, and secondly the chip would allow for instant deactivation if the card was lost of stolen.

Support for the biometric carte vitale has mostly been concentrated with right-wing representatives, however, opponants say that the implementation of the tool would be costly and lengthy.

It would involve replacing at least 65 million cards across France and repurposing them with biometric chips, in addition to taking fingerprints for all people concerned.

Additionally, all healthcare professionals would have to join the new system and be equipped with devices capable of reading fingerprints. 

Left-leaning representatives have also voiced concerns regarding the protection of personal data and whether plans would comply with European regulations for protecting personal data, as the creation of ‘biometric’ carte vitales would inevitably lead to the creation of a centralised biometric database. Additionally, there are concerns regarding whether this sensitive personal information could be exposed to cybercrime, as the health insurance system in France has been targeted by hackers in the past.

Finally, there is concern that the amount of financial loss represented by carte vitale fraud has been overestimated. The true figures are difficult to establish, but fraud related to carte vitale use is only a small part of general welfare fraud, which also covers unemployment benefits and other government subsidy schemes.

The scheme is set to begin in the autumn, but there us no information on how this will be done, and whether the biometric chip will just be added to new cards, or whether existing cards will be replaced with new ones. 

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