Chloroquine and its variant hydroxychloroquine experienced rapid shortages in the country starting on 9 March after early reports indicated the drugs could be used to treat Covid-19, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
Demand for the drugs happened after the president said they could be a “game-changer” when treating patients with the novel virus.
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This information comes from a limited study done in France that combined the anti-malaria drug with an antibiotic. Results showed some patients experienced a lower number of the virus in their nose when using the drug combination.
New York state decided to roll out drug trials starting on Tuesday with its most severe patients to see if the drug combination really could help treat Covid-19. “We hope for optimistic results,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. The state got approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
But widely broadcasting the two drugs has caused shortages, and doctors in states like Illinois, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas are reportedly now hoarding the medication for themselves.
North Carolina’s Board of Pharmacy released an emergency declaration saying pharmacists are noticing a sharp increase in chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine prescriptions.
“Reports include these prescriptions being issued by prescribers for themselves and family members, and for persons who have not been exposed to or infected by the Covid-19 virus,” the Board said.
North Carolina, among other states, has released restrictions for how these medications can be prescribed and reminded pharmacists they had the power to “refuse to fill prescriptions that, in the pharmacist’s professional judgment, are not clinically appropriate.”
Garth Reynolds, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association, told ProPublica the Association was receiving calls and emails from pharmacists about doctors abusing the prescriptions.
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“We even had a couple of examples of prescribers trying to say that the individual they were calling in for had rheumatoid arthritis,” he said, adding that pharmacists suspected that wasn’t true. “I mean, that’s fraud.”
The Association posted a bulletin on Sunday about the rise in prescriptions, saying it was “disturbed by the current actions of prescribers”. The bulletin included instructions for pharmacists to file complaints.
There is no exact timeline about when the drugs will be deemed “safe and effective” for the American public to use, despite early optimism from Mr Trump that they could be used “almost immediately” last week. But currently neither drug is approved by the FDA to treat Covid-19.
One problem with the rise in interest for the two drugs is that lupus sufferers are unable to access their full prescriptions.
The Independent previously spoke with Dr Saira Sheikh – director of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Rheumatology Lupus Clinic and member of the Lupus Foundation of America‘s Medical-Scientific Advisory Council – about the shortage.
“Our patients are calling us non-stop because several pharmacies are limiting the number of tablets that they can fill,” she said. “Some patients who were previously able to pick up a 90-day supply of medication are being restricted to a month’s supply.”
Lupus patients use hydroxychloroquine to treat joint inflammation.
Doctors hoarding the drugs for themselves and family members prior to anyone receiving a Covid-19 diagnosis is controversial because there is only some evidence it helps with people who already have the virus, not those who want to prevent infection, which was a point Dr Sheikh also argued.
“There is no evidence yet to suggest that hydroxychloroquine or anti-malarials are protective or prevent against Covid-19 infections, so people who are not already taking this medication do not need to start on it now,” she said.
Companies like CVS are even addressing the shortage of medication and giving its pharmacists permission to use “professional judgment to determine whether a prescription is valid and appropriate to dispense,” it said in a statement.
More information about if the drugs actually work against Covid-19 might be available in the coming weeks as New York starts its own clinical drug trials.