Drugs’ promise on virus brings shortages
Excitement about treating the new coronavirus with malaria drugs is raising hopes, including with President Donald Trump. But the evidence that they may help is thin, and a run on the drugs is complicating access for people who need them for rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Chloroquine and a similar drug, hydroxychloroquine, showed encouraging signs in small, early tests against the coronavirus. But the drugs have major side effects — one reason scientists don’t want to give them without evidence of their value, even in this emergency.
Yet those preliminary studies raised intense interest after Trump tweeted that hydroxychloroquine plus an antibiotic could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine” and should “be put in use immediately.” He cited a French study that gave the combo to six patients.
Some French doctors and politicians also are pushing to expand hydroxychloroquine’s use. Mayor Christian Estrosi of Nice, France, said on television Monday that he was on his sixth day of treatment and has “the sense I’ve been cured.”
Scientists, however, warn about raising hopes and say major studies are needed to prove the drugs are safe and effective against coronavirus, and to show that people would not have recovered just as well on their own. One such study starts Tuesday in New York.
“Right now, there is no drug that looks like it’s proven so overwhelming in early-stage clinical trials that we can say it’s highly promising,” former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Chloroquine has been used to treat malaria since the 1930s. Hydroxychloroquine came along a decade later and has fewer side effects. The latter is sold in generic form and under the brand name Plaquenil for use against several diseases.
The drugs can cause heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage. Plaquenil’s label warns of possible damage to the retina, especially when used at higher doses, for longer times and with certain other medicines such as the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.
The supply already is pinched for patients who need the drugs for other reasons. A University of Utah service that tracks shortages says four of the seven companies that make generic hydroxychloroquine have reported them. Three other generic drugmakers previously stopped making the tablets.
Patients already are feeling pinched. Toni Grimes, 47, has been taking hydroxychloroquine for 13 years for lupus and said Monday that, for the first time, her standard 90-day refill order is being delayed until March 30. Grimes, who runs a Phoenix-area Lupus Foundation support group, said another member also hasn’t received her refill.
“This is our mainstay” treatment, she said.