As researchers work overtime to find a cure for COVID-19, messages are still mixed about whether existing medications can make a difference. When President Trump mentioned anti-malarial drugs, pharmacies began experiencing shortages as physicians prescriptions for the medicine increased.
Chloroquine or Hydroxychloroquine were used to treat similar viruses over the past couple decades in SARS and MERS, with some positive results. The Centers for Disease Control says that “based upon limited in-vitro and anecdotal data, chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine are currently recommended for treatment of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in several countries.”
Dr. Reuben Elovitz, who is an internist and CEO of concierge practice Private Health Dallas, notes that while it has shown promise, there are significant side effects such as heart and nerve damage and suicidal thoughts that need to be factored in. But when considering that a high number of those being infected are healthcare workers themselves, he sees potential in preventative treatment using those medicines. “Does the risk of the medicine outweigh the side effects?” he says. “We need to make a decision as a system, and the next step is to determine safe and effective protocol.”
Despite Trump’s enthusiasm for the drug, the FDA Commissioner said a large clinical trial would need to be conducted before it can be approved en masse for COVID-19 patients. The drugs were part of a small French study of 36 patients that showed promise, and a trial began in New York this week, but the first controlled study out of China of hydroxychloroquine showed no difference between those who were treated with it and those that received regular treatment.
Officials are also hesitant because those medicines are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and a shortage of the pills because of misplaced hopes in COVID-19 treatment could impact those who actually need the drug. But in the face of what physicians in New York are facing, it might be worth the sacrifice. “For healthcare workers putting themselves at risk, it warrants the discussion about getting them the medicine to protect them from getting the illness,” Elovitz says.
Another antiviral drug, called Remdisivir, is also being used in four trials in the United States for COVID-19 patients, according to the CDC. Elovitz also discussed the possibility of high dose vitamin C as an option to treat Coronavirus patients. It is currently being used along with other medications in New York to treat the virus, but studies show it won’t help prevent someone from catching it.
As the situation evolves quickly, Elovitz is hopeful that a solution arises. “I would hope there would be a lot of preliminary info over the next several weeks that can hopefully guide the system as to what shows benefit,” he says.