Many Americans had never heard of hydroxychloroquine until President Trump said during a press conference last week the drug had shown “very very encouraging early results” against COVID-19.
— ABC News (@ABC) March 19, 2020
Often called chloroquine for short, the drug hydroxychloroquine is commonly used to prevent and treat malaria, and President Trump said, “It’s been around for a long time so we know if things don’t go as planned it’s not going to kill anybody.”
Days later, an Arizona man died and his wife was in critical condition after taking chloroquine phosphate as a possible cure for coronavirus. What the couple took wasn’t the pharmaceutical version of the drug, but an additive commonly used at aquariums to clean fish tanks that the wife told NBC News she had in the house, because she used to have koi fish.
“I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?'” she told NBC News.
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While President Trump said hydroxychloroquine had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency said in a statement that officials are still working “to determine whether it can be used to treat patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 to potentially reduce the duration of symptoms, as well as viral shedding, which can help prevent the spread of disease.”
The statement came a day after a report that the White House was preparing to promote chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine on an online platform to combat coronavirus.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, hydroxychloroquine is in a class of drugs called antimalarials. The drug also has side effects including sensitivity to light, difficulty hearing, muscle weakness, mood or mental changes, irregular heartbeat and convulsions. And while hydroxychloroquine overdoses are rare, they can be life-threatening.
It is also used to treat discoid or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and rheumatoid arthritis in patients whose symptoms have not improved with other treatments. Now, those patients are reporting shortages and major medical providers including Kaiser Permanente have stopped filling routing prescriptions for the drug.
One woman with lupus told Buzzfeed News she had been taking the medication for a decade and is scared about what will happen if she stops taking it.
“I am already immunocompromised, and not taking this medication will likely put me into a lupus flare, making serious complications from COVID more likely,” she told Buzzfeed News.
In an email she received from Kaiser Permanente, the provider wrote, “Thank you for the sacrifice you will be making for the sake of those that are critically ill; your sacrifice may actually save lives.”
Pharmacists told ProPublica they are seeing “unusual and fraudulent prescribing activity” by doctors, who are writing prescriptions for chloroquine to themselves and their families.
But amid all the frenzy, evidence of hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness against COVID-19 is scant. Studies conducted in France and China that suggest the drug can be used to treat coronavirus patients have not been peer reviewed and consist of sample sizes of just 30 to 36 patients.
Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNBC that some of the reported effects could also be attributed to a placebo effect.
What public health officials do agree on, however, is that you should only take hydroxychloroquine if prescribed by your doctor. Otherwise, social distancing and hand washing are still the best preventative measures against COVID-19.
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