Elon Musk and President Trump are touting a 1940s malaria pill as a potential coronavirus treatment. But supplies are already running short as prescriptions spike.
- Demand for malaria pills has skyrocketed, based on the hopes that the drug may be able to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
- Demand has ramped up so much that the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are now in shortage, according to a pharmacy group that tracks supplies of medicines.
- Hydroxychloroquine is a safer, more widely used version of chloroquine
- Patients who depend on the medication to treat their arthritis or lupus have struggled to get the pills due to the demand surge.
- "The fear, the chaos, and the panic is a far greater threat to humanity than a virus, especially for a therapy that may or may not work," said Michael Rea, the founder and CEO of Rx Savings Solutions.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
When Mary Louise Luczkowski called her longtime pharmacist Tuesday to refill her prescriptions for lupus medication, she got a surprising answer.
The small pharmacy in South Lyon, Michigan, couldn't get the pills. Luczkowski has been taking hydroxychloroquine for lupus since 2010, and this is the first time she's struggled to get her medication, she told Business Insider.
Chloroquine and the safer, more widely used variant called hydroxychloroquine have rapidly gone into shortage, as demand has spiked, thanks to early reports the pills may work to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
There is no peer-reviewed clinical data yet showing that these old, generic drugs work against COVID-19. But that hasn't stopped anecdotal reports of chloroquine working in cases across the world from building up hopes for the drug, amplified by both President Donald Trump and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla.
And US prescriptions have spiked as well.
Chloroquine, which is made by one manufacturer in the US, has been in shortage since March 9, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Hydroxychloroquine went into shortage on Thursday, according to the pharmacy group, with four of its eight suppliers affected.
"That's the panic mentality," Luczkowski told Business Insider. "As we've seen with the toilet paper hoarding, but this one matters. You can always use Kleenex or paper towels. There's other creative ideas. For this, there really isn't."
And while it remains to be seen if these pills will work for COVID-19, they have been approved by regulators as a safe and effective medication for malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The shortage has happened quickly as coronavirus treatment hopes emerged
Drug manufacturers are now working to meet the demand. Amneal is working to increase production, according to a person familiar with the company's plans. Mylan said it will restart hydroxychloroquine manufacturing at a West Virginia plant. Other companies didn't immediately return messages seeking comment.
"Even with eight suppliers, just the huge surge in demand is absolutely creating a shortage," said Erin Fox, a drug shortage expert and the senior pharmacy director for the University of Utah's health system.
Fox told Business Insider she made the decision Tuesday to restrict hydroxychloroquine prescriptions, after a pharmacist flagged unusual prescriptions at higher dosing levels for people not previously on the medicine.
The health system, which includes four hospitals and 12 retail clinics, is preserving the drugs for patients with chronic diseases like lupus or arthritis who need them. It also wants to have a supply on-hand if needed for hospitalized patients.
"I think it's concerning to have this huge surge," she said. "I don't think these suppliers are prepared to ramp up production."
The US Food and Drug Administration does not list either drug as in shortage. Fox said drugmakers are required to report shortages to the FDA, but face no penalties for failing to do so.
The shortage will leave patients without the medicine they need
In the case of lupus, uncontrolled disease can restrict your life and even turn fatal. Luczkowski knows firsthand: she had a friend with lupus who died from kidney failure after the disease progressed.
For her, the autoimmune disease often brings flares, where she said her skin feels like it is being burned by the air and her muscles and joints severely ache. In the unresolved scramble to get her medicine, stress, a key trigger of flares, has been particularly high.
"People rely on this medication," Utah's Fox said. "They have chronic illnesses, and they really rely on this. Once you're stable on these therapies, it's not something that is easy to switch."
Michael Rea, the CEO of Rx Savings Solution who was previously a pharmacist, said he is most concerned about the panic that can sweep over people in extreme situations like this.
"The fear, the chaos, and the panic is a far greater threat to humanity than a virus, especially for a therapy that may or may not work," he told Business Insider.
Rea said he advises all healthcare workers to act professional in these times.
"Don't let fear dictate your decisions," Rea said. "Only use the drug, prescribe the drug, obtain the drug if you truly need it."
Fox, who has closely studied drug shortages for about two decades, is worried there will be more to come as the furious scramble to find effective coronavirus treatments continues.
"It makes me worry about potential for other shortages as this goes on," Fox said. "In the US, we're not used to having huge numbers of patients being very very critically ill in our hospitals. We're not used to it and it's a completely different amount of drug people are going to need to have on hand."
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