Australia’s drug regulator has been forced to restrict powers to prescribe a drug undergoing clinical trials to treat COVID-19, because doctors have been inappropriately prescribing it to themselves and their family members, despite potentially deadly side effects.
The anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and the similar compound chloroquine are currently used mostly for patients with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, but stocks in Australia have been diminished thanks to global publicity — including from US President Donald Trump — about the potential of the drug to treat COVID-19.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have potentially severe and even deadly side effects if used inappropriately, including heart failure and toxicity.
Some Australian media outlets have wrongly reported the drug as a “cure” for the virus, even though trials have been either inconclusive or too small to be useful, have only been conducted in test tubes, are not yet complete, or have not even received ethics approval.
The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration said that it was concerned about shortages of the drug for people who need it following increased off-label prescribing as a result of the COVID-19 reports.
As well as heart attacks, the drug can lead to irreversible eye damage and severe depletion of blood sugar potentially leading to coma, the drug regulator said.
Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as possibly “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine” and said that “it’s not going to kill anybody.”
Soon after, a US man died after he drank chloroquine found in fish tank cleaner, because he was scared of getting sick. Other countries have also reported poisonings.
The drug regulator has placed tight new restrictions on doctors who are authorized to write prescriptions for the drug, limiting it to a small group of clinical specialties.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia wrote to members urging them to “refuse the dispensing of hydroxychloroquine if there is not a genuine need.”
The letter said that the society was receiving reports from pharmacists that “they are receiving prescriptions from doctors prescribing for other doctors and their families, as well as dentists prescribing to the community and their families.”
Substitute pharmacist Daniel Roitman, who has been working at pharmacies in and around Melbourne, said that he has seen general practitioners prescribing the drug to themselves and their family members, which is illegal in Victoria.
He said that he also saw people attempting to collect multiple repeats of the drug from different pharmacies in the same day.
“I had a GP [general practitioner] on Monday morning come in and he had written a script for hydroxychloroquine for his wife,” Roitman said. “I had to tell him off in no uncertain terms. I’ve also seen spikes in prescriptions of antibiotics also being used in clinical trials.”
Roitman urged people to think twice before attempting to get hold of the drug.
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