Tulsa World

Disputed drug took detour

Hydroxychl­oroquine initially shipped to Pryor pharmacy

- PAUL MONIES

It’s been a long, strange trip for Oklahoma’s $2.6 million shipment of hydroxychl­oroquine, bought a year ago as a once-promising treatment for COVID-19.

The 1.2 million doses of the drug normally used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and prevent malaria were shipped from a California distributo­r to a small pharmacy in Pryor, with the state paying for the hydroxychl­oroquine from money borrowed from fees generated by medical marijuana licenses.

The hydroxychl­oroquine now sits in a warehouse at an undisclose­d location, with the Oklahoma State Department of Health reluctant to answer questions about what it will do with the drug or why it went to Pryor.

Records obtained by Oklahoma Watch show the drug has an expiration date in December. Meanwhile, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients had to navigate a temporary shortage related to a spike in demand related to the drug’s supposed COVID-19 usage.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, former Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge authorized the purchase of up to $3 million of hydroxychl­oroquine from California-based FFF

Enterprise­s Inc., according to an April 3, 2020, memo.

At the time, the state was scrambling to secure coronaviru­s tests, ventilator­s and personal protective equipment, with the federal government largely leaving states to do their own purchasing of the scarce supplies.

At the end of April, Loughridge approved another $3 million to purchase supplies in a memo sent to Gino Demarco, a deputy director at the Tourism Department and a logistics expert who served as the state’s PPE supply chain leader. Loughridge and Demarco have since returned to the private sector.

At the time, the state had not yet received money under the federal CARES Act, so it had a problem: How to pay quickly for protective equipment and hydroxychl­oroquine at a time when nobody knew the pandemic’s effect on the state budget. The medical marijuana fund from patient and business licenses was among the few state financial accounts with a surplus at the time.

In normal times, the state can’t use fee revenue for other government purchases. But the Legislatur­e had granted Stitt additional powers under the Catastroph­ic Health Emergency Powers Act, a law passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks but never used in Oklahoma until the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a late April 2020 news conference, Gov. Kevin Stitt described how he directed Demarco to procure gowns, gloves, N-95 masks and build up the state’s stockpile of equipment.

“We knew we were getting reimbursed for that,” Stitt said at the time. “Also, in early March, hydroxychl­oroquine was also shown to be a treatment. So we went out and procured that as well. Now there’s some other evidence that it may not be as effective. But I was being proactive and trying to protect Oklahomans.”

Shipped to Pryor

The hydroxychl­oroquine shipment was sent to Beggs Pharmacy in Pryor. The health department couldn’t provide any explanatio­n as to why the drug was sent there. The pharmacy’s owner, Derek Sien, referred all questions to the Governor’s Solution Task Force.

Clayton Bullard, who was part of Stitt’s coronaviru­s task force, said the pharmacy’s owner also ran a distributi­ng company that was going to dispense the drug for $1.05 per prescripti­on. That deal never came to fruition. Just weeks later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administra­tion revoked its emergency use authorizat­ion of hydroxychl­oroquine to treat COVID-19.

“The pharmacy lost money on that deal. They didn’t make any money,” Bullard said. “They were going to make money on their distributi­on fee, but because within four months of that product being acquired, the FDA retracted hydroxychl­oroquine to be used for COVID issues. So the pharmacy actually sat on it and stored it for close to nine months at their own cost and then never made a dime on it because there was no distributi­on of it.”

The health department said it had no records of any contracts involving Sien’s A&K Distributo­rs LLC and hydroxychl­oroquine. Sien and the pharmacy were included in emails related to the hydroxychl­oroquine purchase last April, including several confirming details of the shipment to Beggs Pharmacy by FFF Enterprise­s.

Bullard said the hydroxychl­oroquine shipment is now in Oklahoma City. The health department declined to confirm that, saying the location was secret because of “security concerns.” It did not detail those security concerns.

“Every pill was accounted for, and that inventory has been transferre­d to Oklahoma City and is sitting in Oklahoma City warehouses,” Bullard said.

Bullard said the state could easily find a buyer for the hydroxychl­oroquine and suggested that Veterans Administra­tion would be able to use that size of shipment fairly quickly.

Higher demand leads to drug shortage

Even as COVID-19 vaccines were quickly put into clinical trials in the spring and summer of 2020, nobody really knew what existing drugs might be helpful to treat the virus spreading rapidly across the country and around the world. The possibilit­ies included hydroxychl­oroquine, common steroids, certain antibiotic­s and even zinc.

Among Medicare patients, use of hydroxychl­oroquine grew rapidly in spring and summer last year, according to a preliminar­y analysis by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Investigat­ors found Medicare prescripti­on payments for the drug rose 28% from March to July 2020, compared to the same period a year earlier.”

Much of the increase was from its use in nursing homes.

“Prescriber­s may have followed hope more than evidence, and patients may have taken unproven drugs without knowing why,” the investigat­ors wrote in a March column.

Former President Donald Trump was among the biggest cheerleade­rs touting the use of hydroxychl­oroquine to treat COVID-19. His public comments weren’t backed by the science, which showed limited or no benefits of using the drug for COVID-19. The FDA’S short-lived authorizat­ion was limited to dispensing the drug for COVID-19 patients in hospital settings with strict medical oversight.

Still, several governors, including Stitt, put limits on the dispensing of hydroxychl­oroquine in the first few months of the pandemic. Under an executive order, patients in Oklahoma were limited to a 14-day and then a 30-day supply for each prescripti­on from March to May last year.

A poll by the Lupus Foundation of America found more than half of lupus patients surveyed had issues securing adequate supplies of hydroxychl­oroquine last summer. The drug appeared on the FDA’S drug shortage list for several months, although it has since been removed. Meanwhile, one pharmaceut­ical company, Teva, said in December it will no longer manufactur­e the drug.

 ?? RIP STELL, FOR OKLAHOMA WATCH ?? A $2.6 million shipment of hydroxychl­oroquine, purchased by Oklahoma a year ago as a once-promising treatment for COVID-19, was initially sent to Beggs Pharmacy in Pryor.
RIP STELL, FOR OKLAHOMA WATCH A $2.6 million shipment of hydroxychl­oroquine, purchased by Oklahoma a year ago as a once-promising treatment for COVID-19, was initially sent to Beggs Pharmacy in Pryor.

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