As the coronavirus pandemic escalates across the United States, patients and doctors alike are anxiously searching for promising new treatments. Hydroxychloroquine, best known as an old malaria drug, garnered significant attention and excitement after preliminary research suggested it may effectively treat the COVID-19 virus.
However, the widespread use of hydroxychloroquine in the fight against coronavirus could cause problems for patients with autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
What Is Hydroxychloroquine?
Hydroxychloroquine was first approved for medical use in the U.S in 1955. Also known under the brand name Plaquenil, hydroxychloroquine has been widely used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis for decades.
The World Health Organization includes hydroxychloroquine on its List of Essential Medicines, a complete collection of “the most efficacious, safe and cost-effective medicines for priority conditions.”
Lab tests on hydroxychloroquine indicate that the drug may be able to prevent viruses like COVID-19 from spreading on a cellular level. Preliminary studies supports this theory, but far more research is needed to fully understand the function of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment method.
Autoimmune Disease Patients Fear Medication Shortages
As an increasing number of coronavirus patients vie for hydroxychloroquine treatment, the autoimmune disease patients who have relied on hydroxychloroquine for years are now struggling to fill their prescriptions.
On March 16, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) added hydroxychloroquine to its list of drugs in short supply. At the time, four of the medication’s eight manufacturers reported a shortage of the drug.
“It’s a challenge for us and for our patients,” explained Thomas Dörner, a rheumatologist at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin. “When I write a prescription now, I tell my patients they might need to go to several pharmacies before they get it filled.” This is especially concerning for Lupus and Sjögren’s syndrome patients who have no other treatment alternatives; hydroxychloroquine is the only drug capable of successfully managing their condition.
In response, the Lupus Foundation of America and other organizations are asking drug manufacturers to increase production. Some, like Mylan NV, have answered that call, but additional supplies aren’t expected until mid-April or May. Bayer AG, on the other hand, is donating 3 million tablets of a closely related generic drug to supplement the existing stock of hydroxychloroquine.
Hydroxychloroquine Clinical Trials Continue
Despite the hype surrounding hydroxychloroquine as a SARS-CoV-2 treatment, experts caution against assumptions without proof. Only clinical trials can objectively evaluate the safety and efficacy of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus. Many clinical trials are currently underway, but doctors and scientists can’t be sure of hyroxychloroquine’s effects until the results of those trials are published.
The World Health Organization recently added hydroxychloroquine to its international Solidarity trial designed to compare multiple COVID-19 treatment options and assess their relative effectiveness against the virus. According to the WHO, “the Solidarity trial aims to rapidly discover whether any of the drugs slow disease progression or improve survival. Other drugs can be added based on emerging evidence.”
The University of Pennsylvania also launched a “Prevention and Treatment of COVID-19 with HCQ (PATCH)” study to test whether hydroxychloroquine can help treat or prevent coronavirus. Eligible clinical trial volunteers must have a fever, be over 40, and have recently been sick with the virus. Most importantly, since this clinical trial secured its own drug supply from the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, it won’t contribute to the depletion of existing supplies for patients with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
As the exploration into the potential of hydroxychloroquine continues, the demand may increase dramatically. Experts hope that doctors, scientists, and drug manufacturers can work together to ensure that all patients requiring hydroxychloroquine treatment have easy access to such an essential medication.