Hydroxychloroquine is having a moment. Previously not widely known, the anti-malaria drug is making international headlines with the likes of US President Donald Trump and former politician Clive Palmer touting it as a coronavirus treatment.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Palmer has bought over 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, donating it to the National Medical Stockpile.
Palmer has made a number of television appearances spruiking his purchase, and has published several social media posts encouraging followers to: "See the latest success stories with patients who have recovered from COVID-19 with the help of Hydroxychloroquine," with links to patient testimonials from the US. He's also taken out full page ads in News Corp newspapers.
The drug has been to determine its effectiveness in combating COVID-19 but experts now are less sure about its usefulness.
US President Donald Trump was a big fan of hydroxychloroquine. He said to a group of reporters on April 5, “It’s a very strong, powerful medicine. But it doesn’t kill people.”
“We have some very good results and some very good tests. What really do we have to lose?”
A found the good tests Trump was talking about were few and far between.
The study looked at 386 patients, 97 of which took hydroxychloroquine and had a 27.8 percent death rate, while the 158 patients that didn't take the anti-malaria drug had an 11.4 percent death rate.
In Australia, the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) told The Feed they are closely monitoring clinical studies in Australia and around the world investigating the use of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.
"Hydroxychloroquine can have serious side effects, and can interact with other medications. Given the limited evidence for effect against COVID-19, as well as the risk of significant adverse effects, the routine use of hydroxychloroquine outside of its current indications is discouraged at this time," a TGA spokesperson said.
Asked today about Clive Palmer's donation, federal health minister Greg Hunt said, "he's made a very generous offer to the national medical stockpile," and cited two trials underway at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the University of Queensland.
What do medical experts have to say?
Clive Palmer told Sunrise he bought hydroxychloroquine for Australians, and it poses no risk.
"If it doesn't work out then all that's happened is Clive's lost a bit of money," Palmer said.
Dr Gaetan Burgio is the head of the transgenesis facility at John Curtin School of Medical Research. He disagrees with Palmer's views on hydroxychloroquine, and says the drug would pose more of an adverse effect on COVID-19 patients.
"So first, the treatment hasn't proven to be efficacious," Dr Burgio told The Feed.
"What we've seen a lot described in some of the trials, for example, in Sweden, or even in France have been halted because of the toxicity of hydroxychloroquine on patients. So the problem is I don't think we are ready for a large distribution of hydroxychloroquine to all COVID-19 patients. And in fact, we are in a situation like it would be more of an adverse effect than that."
Dr Burgio says the promotion of the drug by President Trump in the US has impacted the access of medicine for people who use hydroxychloroquine for malaria, lupus and other illnesses.
"What happened is a lot of people came to the pharmacy to try to buy some hydroxychloroquine. And what happened is the patients that are on hydroxychloroquine, the patient that needs this medicine couldn't get their medicine," Dr Burgio said.
"The problem is we are in a situation where hydroxychloroquine is promoted. Where an everyday person hears about it and thinks that it might help. When the evidence is nowhere near this."
In Australia, the hydroxychloroquine won't be freely available in pharmacies. The TGA told The Feed the treatment should only occur in a clinical trial setting or in a hospital for a seriously unwell patient under the guidance of an expert medical professional.
"Any prescribing decision should be made considering the risks and benefits of that treatment for the individual patient," a spokesperson said.
"The TGA has implemented new restrictions on the specialists who can initiate prescribing of this medicine."
Testing over treatment
Before the release of the US study that found issues with the use of hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 patients, a senior US government doctor he was fired because he opted for rigorous testing, opposed to this form of treatment.
The federal government announced today that they secured an additional $10 million on COVID-19 tests for kits and pathology equipment. The funding comes from a partnership between Minderoo Foundation, run by Andrew and Nicola Forrest, and private pathology providers.
Federal health minister Greg Hunt said, "Our approach to testing in Australia, already one of the highest rates per capita in the world, has been a vital part of our success in flattening the infection curve."
Minister Hunt says the Minderoo Foundation funding provides Australia with a fundamental testing capacity for the coronavirus.
"All of this affirms and strengthens our essential pathway out of the current restrictions and our investability as a Nation," he said.
Australia's chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy says testing is necessary to detect and control outbreaks "if physical distancing measures are to be relaxed."
"The AHPPC is advising the National Cabinet on an expanded testing program that will have an initial strong focus on testing anyone who has acute respiratory symptoms (coughs, colds, sore throat etc), widespread testing of contacts of COVID-19 cases and selected cohort studies, such as frontline health and aged care workers," Prof Murphy said.
The problem with social media
Axel Bruns is a professor in the Digital Research Center at the Queensland University of Technology. Prof Bruns told The Feed Palmer's advertising campaign is problematic.
He said that people are also seeking any kind of positive news story about the coronavirus. Compounding issues, he says is the number of cases where people with a significant profile have been promoting homemade remedies to respond to the coronavirus.
"We've got all these kinds of bad actors trying to tap into this fear and exploit it for their own purposes," he said.
"Of course, what we now also have is people who are actively exploiting this by trying to sell you a miracle cure or trying to sell you if not that, perhaps an ideology that explains all of this and says it's all the fault of some deep state conspiracy," Prof Bruns said.
Celebrities like Woody Harreslon have been spreading conspiracy theories that the coronavirus pandemic has to do with 5G towers.
"That can be very dangerous because then they can have real physical effects and people harming themselves or harming others or attacking 5G towers," Prof Bruns said.
Prof Bruns says these theories have always been circulating on the fringes of our social networks and our media but are being exacerbated by the pandemic.
“When you have people actually now starting to drink bleach because essentially they feel that Donald Trump has told them to, there's some very direct physical harm that might occur,” he said.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don't visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
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