The Run on Chloroquine Is Hurting the People Who Need It
The president’s praise for an unproven drug didn’t make me hopeful. Instead, it has sent my family into a state of panic.
As the seriousness of Covid-19 became undeniable, I told my husband if he continued going into work, he could sleep there. I wasn’t joking. Our teenage daughter has a life-threatening autoimmune disease that makes her high-risk. She and I had already been hunkered down for a week in our Indianapolis home long before we all were.
Several others in my family have autoimmune issues as well, including my dad. He’s 73 and lives alone in the Chicago suburbs. He also has a few other health conditions. Before having surgery for a paralyzed vocal cord seven years ago, each of his labored exhalations produced an audible whistle. His grandchildren affectionately dubbed him Wheezy. Two years ago, a stroke impaired his eyesight, so he now can’t drive. He’d been getting around using ride-sharing services to go to the grocery store and fitness center, where he walked most days with friends. But all of that stopped, of course.
To help my dad prepare to shelter in place, my siblings and I pooled efforts, setting him up on WhatsApp to blunt the loneliness sure to follow, stocking his refrigerator and pantry for a month, and ensuring he had all of his prescriptions. Thinking my dad was situated, I turned my attention to my own preparations not realizing another stressful layer was about to unfold.
My husband and I spent an afternoon moving him into my office. It was a sacrifice I was glad to make. Last Thursday, I settled into a sunny spot on the sofa much to the delight of my 18-year-old cat. She curled up next to me. From upstairs, my daughter’s laughter floated down the stairs. She was supposed to be working on math, but I suspected she was on YouTube or virtually chatting with friends. In the room next to her, my husband’s unfamiliarly loud “work voice” — one we never heard at home — boomed through the door.
For a moment, I caught a glimpse of our new normal and had a sense it might be okay. I switched on the daytime news, which was broadcasting the daily White House briefing. I kept the TV volume low enough to provide some white noise as I got to work. I’d been writing for a bit when the word “chloroquine” snapped me to attention. I reached for the remote and turned it up.
“Now, a drug called chloroquine, and some people would add to it, hydroxy, hydroxychloroquine, so chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine,” President Donald Trump said. “… it’s shown very encouraging, very, very encouraging early results, and we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.”
“We’re only filling for 30 days because of high demand,” the pharmacist said.
Hydroxychloroquine, also known as Plaquenil, is a drug that’s been used to treat malaria for more than half a century. It’s also approved for several autoimmune conditions, including the one my dad has: antiphospholipid syndrome, which causes his immune system to attack proteins in his blood and can lead to blood clots.
While Plaquenil is a safe drug when used appropriately, it’s not without risks. It has potential side effects that range from nausea to cardiac arrest. My dad’s doctors are particularly mindful of retinal damage, another potential side effect. He has frequent eye exams to monitor for it as a result.
“And normally the FDA would take a long time to approve something like that, and it was approved very, very quickly, and it’s now approved by prescription,” Trump went on. I rolled my eyes. That wasn’t true. To be approved for this new use, the drug would have to go through clinical trials to prove it was safe and effective.
“Individual states will handle it, they can handle it, doctors will handle it,” the president said. However garbled, that was true. Even if the coronavirus wasn’t an approved use for Plaquenil, doctors could, at their discretion, prescribe it off-label.
I grabbed my phone. “I’m worried there will be a run on Plaquenil,” I texted my brother and sister, explaining what I just witnessed. “I’m on it,” my sister responded. By the time she connected with my dad, he too had heard about the briefing. He’d already messaged his rheumatologist through his online chart and requested a 90-day supply. “I’m concerned Plaquenil is about to go the way of toilet paper,” he wrote to her.
The doctor, perhaps also anticipating a shortage, replied quickly to let him know the prescription had been sent. But soon after came the call from his pharmacy. “We’re only filling for 30 days because of high demand,” the pharmacist said. My dad took solace in the news that if his pharmacist was only filling 30 days at a time, that meant three people would get medicine instead of just one. He hoped other pharmacies were taking the same approach.
While I admired his we’re-all-in-this-together mindset, I reflected on the reason we were filling prescriptions, buying groceries, and staying home in the first place. We need to slow the rate of infection so the health care system doesn’t become overwhelmed and people can get the medical care they need when they need it. If more people try to get Plaquenil all at once and there is a limited supply, won’t some go without?
The president has continued to tweet about Plaquenil and praise it at briefings. The FDA recently announced the drug is currently in shortage.
Just before Illinois declared a stay-in-place order, my sister brought my dad a few more necessities. She replenished his fresh fruits and vegetables and threw in a few extra boxes of tissues. He’s good on nonperishables and cleaning supplies. If he should run out of anything, we’re pretty sure we’ll be able to get him what he needs — even toilet paper.
I just hope we can find Plaquenil.