SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump drew attention Thursday to drugs often used to treat illnesses like malaria that could also help treat COVID-19 patients.
Utah health officials are saying, great — but let’s get a few things straight.
In January, researchers at the University of Utah identified hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as effective methods of COVID-19 treatment after conducting a series of test tube studies, according to Dr. Kurt Hegmann, center director of Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah.
Multiple studies and reports testing the efficacy of the drugs around the world have also shown positive results, Hegmann said during a Friday press conference with politicians, health professionals and business owners.
Two days ago, a study conducted and published in France showed a stark drop in virus replication among patients who were prescribed the drugs, in contrast with those who weren’t, Hegmann explained. While the study was not randomized, it’s exceptionally difficult to see results that stark caused by another factor, he added.
“Taking this scientific evidence and putting it together, we assembled a team,” including both those in the public and private sectors, Hegmann continued.
The first order of business was to find out how much hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine were currently available in the state, said Dan Richards, a pharmacist and CEO at Meds In Motion Pharmacy. Pharmacies across Utah recently received a survey asking about their supplies of the two drugs, and Richards urged them to complete it.
“(The survey) is part of the state plan, and it is how we are going to help as many people as possible in the most efficient way,” he said. “I would also ask of my fellow pharmacies: please, do not dispense of this medication to people who do not have active COVID-19.”
While pharmacies should continue giving the drugs to those who are prescribed them for other issues, like rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis, Richards urged physicians and pharmacists to refrain from prescribing the medication as a preventative measure.
“We are looking at this as a treatment, not a cure,” he said. “We need to be very judicious in how we are using this medication, and your participation as pharmacies across the state is very integral to our state plan.”
These drugs are especially exciting because they’ve already been around for 80 years now, said Senate President J. Stewart Adams. And side effects generally only display themselves if a patient has been taking the medication for years, Richards added.
No drug has yet been specifically approved for treating COVID-19, however. But Utah health officials believe waiting for specific approval will most likely take too long.
The state has put in a standing order for the drugs, and several local companies have offered help to make the drug accessible and affordable to all Utahns who need it, said Mark Newman, founder and CEO of Nomi Health. The price of hydroxychloroquine rose from 14 cents to $25 in the last 48 hours, however, according to Newman, who has helped lead the charge in the private sector.
But local health professionals are still optimistic.
“I have no doubt in my mind this will be a very effective program,” Hegmann said. “The medication stops viral replication. So once you stop the virus from replicating … the body’s immune system can win.”