"We all just desperately want to do something and sort of ... fend this off," Dr. Jeff Linder, chief of general internal medicine and geriatrics at Northwestern Medicine told Newsy.
President Trump is touting the use of two drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, to treat the coronavirus. They are not approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19. But demand for the two drugs is spiking, resulting in overdoses and supply chain strain.
"And so the idea that there is a pill out there, I totally get the appeal of it. But we want to make sure that the pill that people are taking is safe and effective," Linder said.
Right now, the drugs have been used in a handful of serious and investigational cases for COVID-19 and are FDA-approved for malaria and arthritis. But many hospitals, doctors, and everyday people have begun loading up on them. Medical experts Newsy spoke with say we should be cautious, though, because the research on these drugs is limited at best.
"This study from France involved basically 20 patients who were treated with hydroxychloroquine, six of whom, only six, who also received azithromycin, and all it showed was that it reduced the amount and duration, for which it seemed like people might be contagious with COVID-19. It actually didn't show that those patients did any better or or got better any faster," Linder said.
Some are self-medicating with dangerous results. In Arizona, a man died after overdosing on fish tank cleaner with the same active ingredient, chloroquine phosphate.
"For the moment, we're really starting people on anti-malarial drugs if the clinical suspicion is high that they would have COVID[-19] because we want to get those going before people get really symptomatic or really sick. And again, I'm only talking about inpatients; we're not prescribing those for outpatients at the moment," Dr. Jason Kelly, chief medical officer at SkyBridge Medical Center, told Newsy.
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists tells Newsy they already saw reports of supply problems last week as hospitals started purchasing the drugs to have on hand for possible inpatient treatment and clinical trials. The White House remarks have driven people to start hoarding products and self-prescribing for friends, family and self.
"As soon as that came out as a potential treatment, one of the things I did was call my pharmacy director and see how many of those meds that we have on hand. And so right now, we're pretty well stocked with those." Kelly said.
It’s very concerning for patients who need hydroxychloroquine for chronic illnesses like lupus and arthritis – they're not able to fill prescriptions, and in some cases can only fill smaller amounts, requiring them to go back to the pharmacy more frequently for refills. Experts say publicity about the shortage has prompted suppliers to ramp up manufacturing, so hopefully it won't be a long-term issue.
The federal government is relaxing some restrictions on imports from one Indian pharmaceutical company. Mumbai-based Ipca Laboratories said in a March 21 securities filing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "has made an exception" for three of its facilities so it can supply tablets and raw materials for making chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine sulphate.
We asked the FDA how they know the drug is safe now. An FDA spokesperson refused to comment on any specific company action, but told Newsy: "There is a significant surge in demand of chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine and we are doing everything possible to work with manufacturers to increase production. We are working with manufacturers to assess their supplies and are actively evaluating market demand for patients dependent on it for treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. But please know this is a fluctuating and dynamic situation we are actively engaged on."