ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There is no vaccine for the coronavirus, but medical professionals are hoping that some drugs already in use for other diseases might help those who are ill from COVID-19. One such drug is called hydroxychloroquine. President Trump has tweeted and spoken about it, as he did last Friday.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It may work, and it may not work. I feel good about it. That's all it is; just a feeling.
SHAPIRO: At that same briefing, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned that it really needs a methodical clinical trial first. This talk is already causing problems. And to explain, Martha Bebinger of WBUR in Boston joins us now.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What is this drug? And what's it used for?
BEBINGER: Hydroxychloroquine, Ari, is part of a long-standing group of anti-malaria drugs. There's also a version that's now a daily treatment for people with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It eases joint swelling and rashes. As you mentioned, there is some preliminary research that shows hydroxychloroquine may be effective to treat COVID-19, but these are not based on robust clinical trials, the kind you need to prove that a drug is safe and effective for a new disease. And there can be some bad side effects with this drug - in the extreme, possibility of heart attack. So scientists stress that we need FDA-level research and approval before we start using this drug to treat COVID-19.
SHAPIRO: But since President Trump is already talking about it, you have people trying to get it for themselves. Are supplies robust enough to handle that demand?
BEBINGER: Well, I'm hearing from patients with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus who say they cannot fill their prescriptions. Pharmacists, Ari, say the main reason, it appears, is that doctors, dentists and nurse practitioners are prescribing the drug for themselves and family members - basically hoarding it.
SHAPIRO: What does that mean for the patients who have lupus or rheumatoid arthritis who are already on the drug?
BEBINGER: Well, doctors say if their patients can't get this medicine, then they won't be able to manage those diseases. Patients could have to try out alternative drugs. But if they have disease flares, they may need to be hospitalized. And, of course, that's a really bad idea right now, when we need more hospital beds to deal with the pandemic. One doctor told me that he spent most of last week fielding calls from anxious patients who wanted to see if they could get longer prescriptions or just wanted some assurance about what will happen if the drug runs out.
SHAPIRO: Is there anything being done to protect the supply?
BEBINGER: Yep, some of the leading pharmacy chains like CVS say they are aware of the problem and that they are preserving supplies. Now, today we learned that in six states, boards of pharmacy - they're essentially the state regulators. They're telling pharmacists that they may have to limit prescriptions to make sure that the - to make sure there's enough supply. And they also may - they also really need to be sure that they're only filling prescriptions for legitimate patients, not a health care worker, their family or friends.
SHAPIRO: Go ahead. Yeah.
BEBINGER: Ari, can I add one more thing to that?
BEBINGER: In a separate move today, the FDA boosted the supply of hydroxychloroquine and related drugs by lifting import restrictions on a pharmaceutical manufacturer in India that makes them. Now, that might sound great, but some doctors are worried because this is a manufacturer the FDA had cited for serious quality lapses and said it could not sell in the U.S. But now it can.
SHAPIRO: Given all the worries you described about the supply, why would any doctor write themselves a prescription for this?
BEBINGER: Well, as I mentioned, there is some evidence that hydroxychloroquine might be used to help fight COVID-19. It's not approved for that purpose. But in this moment, when doctors can't get enough masks and gowns, they might say, I need to have this medication on hand in case it helps. They're thinking of it as a tool so that they can stay healthy and deal with the pandemic. But the problem with that is that if we have a limited supply of this drug, medical ethicists say it must go to the people most in need, not to the people who have easiest access to it, meaning the doctors and other prescribers who can write scripts for themselves.
SHAPIRO: That is Martha Bebinger, health reporter for WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News, speaking with us from Boston.
Thank you, Martha.
BEBINGER: Thank you, Ari.
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