Five minutes to understand: Whatever happened to French professor Didier Raoult?

Five minutes to understand: Whatever happened to French professor Didier Raoult?
Professor Didier Raoult. Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP
He was once proclaimed as a saviour who had found the cure for Covid, but now he faces being out of a job - here's what happened to French professor Didier Raoult, who used hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19.

Remind me who he is?

Professor Didier Raoult is a microbiologist and head of the IHU Méditerranée, which specialises in infectious diseases.

Back in March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic when hospitals around the world were filling up with patients with a largely unknown illness, he claimed that he had discovered that hydroxychloroquine could cure patients who were seriously ill with the virus.

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Professor Raoult merchandise from 2020. Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP

This was obviously very good news – it was the first time that anyone had suggested a cure and hydroxychloroquine was already on the market as an anti-malaria drug so could be produced cheaply and in large amounts.

These claims attracted great interest, even more so when then US president Donald Trump backed his cure.

But as I recall the pandemic didn’t end in March 2020?

No. Professor Raoult made the announcement following a study he had conducted on patients at Marseille’s hospital, and at that time his research had not been peer-reviewed or published.

Almost immediately other doctors, many of whom had also been experimenting with commonly available drugs including anti-malaria medication and HIV and Ebola drugs, cast doubt on his results.

Further large-scale studies of hydroxychloroquine conducted under test conditions showed that patients given hydroxychloroquine did no better than those given other drugs.

So that was the end of it?

Far from it. Professor Raoult stuck to his guns and what started as a dispute over results of a drugs trial went down some very unexpected avenues including the age-old conflict between Marseille and Paris.

Prof Raoult had long proclaimed himself as an outsider to the medical ‘establishment’ and had set up the institute in Marseille in order to be away from what he regarded as the stifling conformity of the medical community in Paris.

He insisted that a deadly pandemic was no time to conduct randomised trials and that if doctors believe a drug works they have a moral duty to give it to patients, rather than a placebo. Others disagreed and said that progress could only be made with properly controlled studies of medication.

He became something of a local hero in Marseille, which is always fond of sticking two fingers up at the capital, and his struggles against ‘the establishment’ saw him adopted as a figurehead by many anti-authority and conspiracy theory movements.

A demonstrator at an anti-lockdown protest in Marseille holds up a ‘Raoult for president’ sign. Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP

Over the past 18 months he has also questioned lockdowns, predicted the imminent end of the pandemic, minimised the seriousness of the delta variant of Covid and questioned the vaccination programme.

Why are we talking about him now?

Because he faces losing both his jobs.

This isn’t, however, as a direct result of his activities since March 2020 but rather more prosaically because of his age.

Having turned 69, he has reached retirement age for an academic, which means the end of his functions as an academic at Aix-Marseille university and a practitioner at Marseille University Hospital in September.

The IHU Méditerranée, which he helped found, is a slightly different case. It does not have a mandatory retirement age but two board members have used the occasion of his retirement to call for tenders to replace him at the head of the institute.

The job advert rather pointedly calls for “a legitimate, charismatic researcher who is recognised by his or her peers in the field of infectious diseases”.

What is the reaction to his departure?

The professor has set himself up as a “scientific guarantor of the anti-vaccine, anti-health passport discourse”, and “feeds the conspiracy sphere”, Marseille hospital director François Crémieux told Le Monde, adding that his presence at the head of a renowned medical research institute therefore raises questions.

Requests by Prof Raoult to extend his contract at the Institute have been turned down.

His supporters, on the other hand, are furious, seeing this as yet another plot of ‘the establishment’ against their hero. The hashtag #TouchePasARaoult (Don’t touch Raoult) has been trending on Twitter, propelled in particular by the right-wing politician Florian Phillipot who has emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-health passport movement.

Did anyone ever find a cure for Covid?

Not really. As time went on and more was discovered about the illness doctors have been better able to treat it and people who end up in intensive care with it now have a better chance of survival than they did at the start of the pandemic, but people continue to die every day from the illness.

That is why the focus has largely shifted to vaccines, which dramatically lower the risk of contracting the illness in the first place and, if you do get it, greatly reduce the risk of developing the most serious symptoms.

Around 85 percent of Covid patients who end up in ICU are unvaccinated.

For an in-depth look at the rise and fall of Prof Raoult, we recommend this long read by Paris-based journalist Katy Lee.


Member comments

  1. I simply CANNOT comprehend why so many French people shun the vaccine. It’s almost (I suppose) their way of being bloody-mindedly independent and this is just their misguided way of protesting against “The Establishment” by whatever means, rather similar to those people who throw stones or firecrackers at fire-engines or the Police in sensitive areas…..

    1. Here Richard, let me try make you understand…. All the injections available to us are still on trial. They haven’t been fully tested and there are side effects.
      “Vaccinated” people are still having problems travelling, for example. Just read the comments on this very forum and you’ll see. Funny how you haven’t noticed what a money making scam this is.
      Another funny thing is, our Mayor Christian Estrosi (Nice, Alpes-Maritimes) was cured after 3 days of taking hydroxychloroquine from Prof Raoult. Bet you didn’t know that?

      1. Much social media discussion about the Covid debate is founded on opinion rather than verifiable empirical evidence. Sadly it has been elevated alongside the understandably banned bar/pub topics of politics and religion.
        Of course history will make the final judgement, but attempting to make open minded, intelligent, informed comment without a thorough evaluation of irrefutable research and accelerated test results achieved through funding levels never before available, is a sad reflection of limited, superficial thinking.

      2. Daniela,
        * Travel difficulties are not relevant to the merits of a vaccine for disease control.
        * If you’re trying to say the vaccine is a money making scam (& not trying to say that travel is money making) did you not know that the AZ vaccine, for example, is available at cost to help poor countries?
        *The AZ vaccine was fully trialled (note below).
        * There may be side effects with drugs, that’s a fact of using them. Drug information sheets that come in the packets have a note that you can report any so far unknown side effects via the UK Yellow Card Scheme.
        *There are side effects with vaccines: ideally your body does react by producing antibodies.
        I had no side effects at all, which makes me think I shall certainly have an antibody test to check if the drug has done its thing despite no side effects.

        *The AZ vaccine appears to have a very rare side effect amongst those under 40. So far it seems to be 10 cases per million. That leaves 999,990 people out of each million vaccinated who have major protection against a killer disease. No-one discounts a death, no-one discounts 10 in a million, but do you know how many per million have died of Covid in the countries that might concern you? Do you know how many per million are suffering from Long Covid?
        Stats vary depending on the parameters, that’s a given, but as of today on https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/
        France has recorded 1,646.63 per million overall
        The UK has recorded 1,965.45 per million overall
        The US has recorded 1,908.54 per million overall
        Take France for just the last 7 days – 5.38 per million
        UK – 7.9
        USA – 18.83
        I’m not taking this as gospel, there are bound to be other figures from reliable sources but I don’t have time to check them all, however these figs seem to coincide pretty much with several sources that report to the media on a regular basis. We hope to get the most accurate figs when the enquiries take place. You are welcome to get some official figures & argue about the parameters, but personally I would prefer to know the results of peer reviews or qualified statisticians rather than personal anxieties.

        *Note on AZ trials. There were a lot of volunteers promptly available, far more than usual. I don’t know how many over 80s or teens were allowed to take part… I do not know how many under 40s took part, but statistically it looks like you would need to have had 100,000 in order to find a blood clotting incidence. Would you expect such vast numbers from each age group to volunteer?

        Nobody yet knows how many are suffering from Long Covid. If you have relevant information you could post here. Thanks.

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