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Shortage Of Malaria Drug That Could Potentially Treat Coronavirus

An old malaria treatment that was touted by Donald Trump to use against the coronavirus is in short supply, as demand for an effective treatment against the fast-spreading outbreak surges.

An old malaria treatment that has been tried with some success against the new coronavirus and was touted by U.S. President Donald Trump at a news briefing is in short supply, as demand surges amid the fast-spreading outbreak.

The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), which maintains a list of drugs in shortage independent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's list, added the generic malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to its list on Thursday.

Four out of eight manufacturers of the drug are currently in shortage, it said.

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The new coronavirus, which causes the highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory illness, emerged in December in Wuhan, China and has spread throughout the world.

There are no vaccines or treatments approved for the disease but researchers are studying existing treatments and working on experimental ones.

At the moment, most patients can only receive supportive care.

Earlier this week, researchers from the University of Queensland announced they will begin a clinical trial of a potential treatment using two existing drugs -- an HIV medication and an anti-malaria drug.

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Meanwhile overseas, hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug touted by Trump, remains in short supply.

Erin Fox, senior director of drug information at the University of Utah Health, who maintains ASHP's shortages list, said pharmacists are unable to get the drug or fill prescriptions in full.

Fox said that University of Utah's 12 retail pharmacies are not filling prescriptions for prophylactic use, and are preserving their stocks for inpatient needs.

The FDA could not be reached for comment but hydroxychloroquine is not on its drugs in shortage list.

Trump called on U.S. health regulators to expedite potential therapies aimed at treating COVID-19, including hydroxychloroquine.

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"We're going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately," Trump said of the malaria drug at a White House briefing.

Fox and the FDA have been watching for drug shortages that could be due to supply chain issues with manufacturing in China and India.

But surging demand in recent weeks is the issue with the malaria drug, which can also treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, according to online pharmacy, Honeybee Health.

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Its co-chief executive, Jessica Nouhavandi, sent a letter to prescribers earlier this week, urging them to be aware of potential hoarding of the drug that could deprives those who really need it.

On Thursday, Nouhavandi said demand was its highest yet after Trump's comments.

Meanwhile, a pill containing two HIV drugs that was also named as a potential treatment has been deemed to be not effective, according to a study released earlier this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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A test in Chinese patients with severe COVID-19 disease found the 99 who received AbbVie Inc’s Kaletra, a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, fared no better than the 100 who received standard care.

People who received the combination showed small gains in the time to clinical improvement and mortality at 28 days, but the differences were not statistically significant. People on the drugs showed clinical improvement after a median of 15 days compared to 16 days with standard care, a difference the researchers characterized as “significant, albeit modest.”

The study results were published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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The lopinavir-ritonavir combination also produced more side effects, prompting the treatments to be halted in 13.8 per cent of patients.

The drug combination was not tested against a placebo, which is the gold standard in assessing the effectiveness of treatment. All of the patients had pneumonia and were treated at Jin Yin-Tan Hospital in Wuhan, the city where the pandemic began.

The treatment “was not associated with clinical improvement or mortality in seriously ill patients with COVID-19 different from that associated with standard care alone,” concluded the team, led by Dr Bin Cao of the National Clinical Research Center for Respiratory Diseases.

The test “was a heroic effort,” Dr Lindsey Baden and Dr Eric J Rubin, editors of the New England Journal of Medicine, said in an editorial.

“Unfortunately, the trial results were disappointing.”

With AAP and Reuters