Connecticut doctors are finding some success in treating COVID-19 patients with a controversial malaria drug that has undergone very limited testing in its effectiveness against the coronavirus.
In Bridgeport Hospital, virtually every patient in the intensive care unit has been given hydroxychloroquine, which is normally used to treat lupus, an auto-immune disease, as well as arthritis and malaria, said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious disease there.
“We use this more for its anti-inflammatory properties,” Saul said in a phone interview from the hospital. “We’re using this as our protocol.” He described the results so far as “positive” in patients meeting certain criteria including low oxygen levels in their blood.
“We’re collecting data, so we don’t have any clear data,” Saul said. “I don’t think anyone does. We’ll know later in the year when all the data comes in. For the most part people are able to tolerate it. It does cause nausea and diarrhea.”
While the drug’s use in battling the coronavirus has been touted in recent week’s by President Donald Trump, the highly limited clinical trials have come under fire by large segments of the medical community, including warnings that shortages of hydroxychloroquine endanger the health of its traditional lupus patients. On Monday, a fact-checker report in the Washington Post further exposed its shortcomings.
At Bridgeport Hospital, part of the Yale New Haven Health system, Saul said that, sometimes, patients can remain on the drug for only limited amounts of time.
“This is by no means a benign drug, but we felt good enough to give it to people who are a little sicker,” Saul said. “Everybody in the ICU is on it because they are the sickest of the sick.” Patients with histories of heart problems are kept away from it.
At least one study found that hydroxychloroquine protected cells from the novel coronavirus. And the American College of Rheumatology recently noted that while the drug seems to halt the spread of the coronavirus in a limited study, another study, cited by Trump on March 19, has been proven false.
In a letter last month to Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, the American College of Physicians voiced concerns about the sudden popularity of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19 could result in less available for patients with compromised immune systems and arthritis.
“It is important to note that use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment is still early in the clinical trial testing stage and there is very limited clinical data available to suggest its efficacy in treating the virus,” said the letter, signed by Dr. Robert McLean, a New Haven rheumatologist who is the president of the American College of Physicians.
The Associated Press reported Monday that scientists in Brazil partially abandoned a study of the drug after heart-rhythm problems were seen in about 25 percent of people given the higher of two doses.
Last week, Amneal Pharmaceuticals, a New Jersey-based manufacturer of generic drugs, donated 4,000 bottles containing 400,000 200-milligram hydroxychloroquine tablets that were distributed to state hospitals following its emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration for use in helping COVID-19 patients.
“Making sure that medical facilities have the resources they need to treat patients who are in dire need of our support is an absolute priority,” Gov. Ned Lamont said last week in accepting the donation. Amneal Pharmaceutical has made similar donations to other states, including Louisiana and New York.
“We are learning more every day about how best to care for patients with COVID-19, including that hydroxychloroquine may play an important role in treatment,” said Jennifer Jackson, CEO of the Connecticut Hospital Association.