A mark of an inoculation of BCG, Bacille de Calmette et GuÈrin, shows on Japanese baby's arm. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

As the pandemic swept over the world, in countries here and there people saw promising signs that one or the other of a couple of existing pharmaceutical treatments might help with Covid-19.

There was the 100-year-old tuberculosis vaccine BCG, which most Japanese receive in infancy. And there were malaria drugs, derived from quinine, called chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

Weeks later, it’s worth asking: How are those doing in the hope sweepstakes? The short answer is that the malaria drugs are not doing so well. Issues of safety and efficacy, as well as politics, have taken some of the shine off their allure.

The TB vaccine, on the other hand, hasn’t been proven effective against the coronavirus – but hasn’t been proven ineffective or dangerous, either, and researchers are enthusiastically testing it in separate efforts globally.

One theory is that people vaccinated with BCG are better able to combat new illnesses because their immune systems have been sensitized to deal with other disease microbes.

Here in Japan, where only 566 people are recorded as having died of the virus – and where the notion of BCG’s effectiveness arose partly thanks to a world map showing a remarkable correlation between Covid-19 rates and countries’ policies regarding TB vaccination – the word is that clinics are still clogged with parents in a hurry to get their youngsters vaccinated.

From my mountain home, I learned about that in what has now become a weekly virtual cocktail hour on Zoom with my son in Tokyo and a group of relatives and mutual friends.

My eight-month-old granddaughter had just been taken to a neighborhood clinic for her BCG shot. Her father, my Beijing-born son, feared he had not received the vaccine in infancy and said he would like to do so now, as a Covid-19 precaution. But he said the outlook for doing so was poor.

The clinics have no time for grownups who are responding to what, until tests are completed, remains an “urban legend” that BCG provides some immunity against the coronavirus, he said. That’s because the clinics are too crowded with infants, who have priority to get the vaccination, accompanied by parents.

A box of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine made by Sanofi, used for years to treat malaria and autoimmune disorders. To date, no clinical trials have demonstrated a real effect on the virus. Photo: AFP / Alain Pitton / NurPhoto


Chloroquine and hyroxychloroquine are among several other drugs that have been received somewhat more skeptically by the scientific and medical communities.

Donald Trump, MD (Master Debater), relentlessly promoted the malaria medicines, allegedly to the point of pressuring subordinates to accept for the national stockpile a batch of chloroquine pills made in India and Pakistan that had not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

The US has suffered more than 70,000 deaths from the virus.

Trump cited research by a French scientist who had tested only a small sampling of people but who was championed by leftists who argued that the “neoliberal” French government had dropped the ball.

For now in the United States, at least, the question whether chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine help with the virus has become so mixed up with partisan politics that your view is likely to depend on whether you like or dislike Trump.

It reminds me of a bar fight decades ago in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

A former scribe, who had switched career goals and enrolled in a Caribbean medical school, came back on a visit after finishing the first two years of his studies.

When a still-serving correspondent seated across the round table cast aspersions on the quality of what he termed the “Papa Doc Medical School,” the med student retorted, “You’re crazy!”

Sneering, the correspondent inquired, “Is that your MEDICAL opinion, DOCTOR?”

The enraged med student leapt across the table, knocked the correspondent to the floor and pummeled his face. Another correspondent had to break up the fight.

Bradley K. Martin began his foreign correspondent career in 1977 for The Baltimore Sun. He is currently an associate editor of Asia Times. He is not a doctor and has no medical opinions.