For the past few weeks, President Trump has been on the news touting a possible treatment for COVID-19—hydroxychloroquine. The medication is normally used to treat malaria or autoimmune disorders, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. The later is why some think that it could help with fighting the virus because for people with autoimmune disorders it helps decrease the immune system’s response, which is key since theirs is overreacting. Since COVID-19 causes life-threatening inflammation to occur in the people that it impacts, there is hope that hydroxychloroquine and other similar medications would help to reduce it.
The issue is that there isn’t conclusive proof that it actually works. In addition, it doesn’t have the Food and Drug Administrations approval for this use. There have been limited studies coming from China and France saying it might help, but experts have found flaws in the studies that make the results less reliable. This has led to many experts, including those on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to repeatedly not recommend taking it until further information is gathered to determine the safety and efficacy of using it for this purpose.
Experts have also made sure to point out that the medication should not be taken by any one who has an abnormal heart rhythm. People who have heart problems and other underlying conditions are more likely to be severely affected by the coronavirus, which means they’re also at higher risk of experiencing dangerous side effects if they take the medication. Another important thing to know is that even healthy people can end up with an arrhythmia that results in cardiac arrest.
Unfortunately, as a result of Trump’s claims, there has been hoarding and a run on the drug, which has left patients who rely on the drug for chronic diseases not knowing if they’ll be able to fill their regular prescriptions. One of the purchasers was the federal government, which has place 29 million of the pills in the national stockpile. In the end of March, the American Medical Association and two pharmacists’ associations issued a statement after it was discovered that doctors and pharmacists have been prescribing the drug for their families and colleagues. In addition, some pharmacies and hospitals had purchased mass quantities of these medications in anticipation of potentially using them for prevention and treatment. The organizations strongly oppose these actions since it has and will continue to create shortages for individuals who actually need the medication.
As far as the potential benefit, hydroxychloroquine has disappointed in the past. According to experts, it has been tested for many decades as a possible treatment for other viruses, including influenza. Despite showing positive outcomes against several viruses in the laboratory, in randomized clinical trials the results were not replicated.