The French scientist who promoted the discredited hydroxychloroquine treatment for Covid-19 backed by Donald Trump faces being pushed out of the infectious diseases institute he founded, amid concerns from key members over its role in feeding conspiracy theories and an investigation by regulators into its clinical studies.
Didier Raoult has built a worldwide following throughout the pandemic for his support of the malaria drug despite its failure in randomised control trials. Multiple studies, including by the Recovery trial and the World Health Organisation, have found hydroxychloroquine to be ineffective in treating Covid-19.
University professors must retire at the age of 68 in France. Raoult turned 69 in March, and so from 31 August will no longer be eligible to continue his post as a researcher and medical practitioner at the University of Aix-Marseille and Marseille University Hospitals.
His age does not disqualify him from continuing as director of the Marseille-based infectious diseases institute he founded, IHU Méditerranée Infection, but François Crémieux, the director of Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Marseille (AP-HM), one of the founding member institutions of the IHU, told Le Monde it is not reasonable for Raoult to continue there after he ceases to practise medicine and conduct university research.
Crémieux and Eric Berton, president of the University of Aix-Marseille, another founding member, told the paper they will propose a search for a new director in September. Berton said they would “put the process on the table and see how the other founding members position themselves”.
Jean-Luc Jouve, the president of the AP-HM’s medical commission, told the French newspaper that Raoult had requested to continue in his position at the hospital on a part-time basis, but that his proposal would not be accepted. “There are more than enough teams at the IHU to make up for his departure,” Jouve said.
The French medicines agency has opened an investigation into IHU’s hydroxychloroquine studies, as has University of Aix-Marseille itself. A previous inquiry by Marseille public prosecutors was dismissed.
The hashtag #TouchePasARaoult (don’t touch Raoult) was trending on Twitter in France on Thursday morning, with supporters fiercely defending the scientist, who has gained cult status on some corners of the internet since the pandemic began.
Florian Philippot, a far-right politician and former campaign director for Marine Le Pen, has launched a petition in support of Raoult. Philippot has recently built a large following by opposing France’s health pass scheme.
Raoult has released videos on the IHU’s YouTube channel throughout the pandemic, racking up half a million subscribers to his dispatches on Covid-19.
“I would like the information disseminated by the IHU to be in peer-reviewed scientific publications that allow for scientific debate, not in YouTube videos,” Crémieux told Le Monde. “Whether deliberately or not, the institute has become the scientific guarantor of the anti-vaccine, anti-health-pass debate and feeds the conspiracy sphere. This is a problem that must be put to an end.”
A 2020 study found that French people who reject masks were more likely to support Raoult, and more likely to refuse a vaccine if offered.
The IHU Méditerranée Infection did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.