CALABAR, Nigeria—In the Nigerian hospital where Stella Immanuel—the eccentric doctor who praised hydroxychloroquine in the COVID-19 disinformation video endorsed by President Donald Trump—studied medicine and qualified as a physician, cases of adverse effects from chloroquine are no longer rare.
Since Trump began to tout the malaria drug as a potential coronavirus treatment, many in Calabar, the capital of Nigeria's southeastern Cross River State, have rushed to pharmacies and patent medicine stores to obtain its more common cousin, chloroquine (hydroxychloroquine was developed in the 1950s from chloroquine, an old anti-malarial drug).
“Chloroquine suddenly became the most profitable drug in the market,” Nnamdi Uche, who works in a local pharmacy in Calabar, told The Daily Beast. “Even when we sold it for three times the normal price we weren't short of buyers.”
Doctors at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH), where Dr. Immanuel studied in the ’80s and early ’90s, said they’ve had to treat many patients suffering from the adverse effects of taking chloroquine to prevent or treat the coronavirus, ever since Trump incorrectly said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved hydroxychloroquine for use in coronavirus patients.
“The number keeps growing every month,” Dr. Collins Anyachi of the UCTH Department of Family Medicine told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen patients as young as 3 and as old as 67 who've suffered severe effects of chloroquine use.”
The cases at UCTH have been disturbing. A 3-year-old was treated for hearing loss. An adult suffered cardiac arrhythmia after self-medicating on chloroquine, and a 67-year-old arrived at the hospital in a coma as a result of chloroquine intoxication. Dozens of others have suffered troubling side effects ranging from severe rashes to respiratory problems.
But in a city where quackery is rampant, with many patent medicine dealers and where even private pharmacists take up the role of doctors, the severity of the damage chloroquine does to users may not completely be known, as many prefer to seek treatment and medical counsel from these medicine dealers and pharmacists.
“Many are scared of coming to the hospital either because of cost or perhaps it's more convenient to visit nearby pharmacies,” said Dr. Anyachi. “But there are some pharmacists who've called us to report that some people they administered chloroquine to are experiencing severe side effects.”
Health authorities in Nigeria have not fully approved the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Nigeria's own version of the FDA, recently said the drug was still undergoing clinical trials which will take between three to four months to conclude—although initial data has shown the drug worked “at a mild stage” for some coronavirus patients.
“Nobody should buy chloroquine and use it,” Mojisola Adeyeye, NAFDAC’s director-general, warned in May, while addressing reporters in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja. “So far, no group or individual has proffered any solution to the treatment or management of the pandemic.”
While the rush for chloroquine in pharmacies and patent medicine stalls appeared to have reduced in recent weeks, the claim by Houston-based Dr. Immanuel in a video on Monday that she had successfully treated 350 coronavirus patients using hydroxychloroquine drove many in Calabar to begin to search for chloroquine again.
“We sold more chloroquine this week than we have done in the last two months,” said Uche, the pharmacy worker. “It was definitely because of the Stella Immanuel video.”
Immanuel rose to prominence on Monday after footage of a bizarre press conference—which was organized by the Tea Party Patriots and starred a number of doctors who disagree with reputable medical experts on the pandemic—immediately went viral, racking up millions of views on social media after it was shared by Trump and his supporters.
In the footage, Immanuel declared that hydroxychloroquine cures coronavirus and that face masks are unnecessary. After Trump retweeted Immanuel’s video, The Daily Beast was the first to report that the controversial physician also believes that “alien DNA can be used in medical treatments, that various gynecological ailments are caused by dream sex with demons and witches, and that reptilian aliens are involved in the American government.”
Still, her comments on hydroxychloroquine were well received by many in Calabar, where Immanuel spent close to a decade training as a medical student before relocating to the U.S. in the early ’90s after qualifying as a physician. Some said she’s being castigated by the U.S. media because she supports Trump, who they believe is working to protect the world from satanic elements including American Democrats.
“Nobody wants to listen to her because some powerful people would rather want us to have a vaccine that they can use to manipulate people,” a doctor who said he was a classmate of Immanuel told The Daily Beast privately. “Hydroxychloroquine works and there's evidence to prove that it's effective for coronavirus treatment.”
The fear that Immanuel's hydroxychloroquine effectiveness claim could encourage even more people to self-medicate on the drug forced the guild of medical directors, a group of private hospital owners in Nigeria, to issue a statement advising against the use of the “unproven” drug to treat or prevent coronavirus.
“People must understand that this is not scientific evidence and just her own personal, unsubstantiated claims,” Olufemi Babalola, a professor of ophthalmology and president of the guild, said in a statement.
Among many Cameroonians, who fled the fighting between government forces and English-speaking separatists in Cameroon's western regions to refugee settlements in Cross River State, the controversial doctor, who was born in Cameroon, is a hero in the fight against the coronavirus.
“By proving that hydroxychloroquine cures coronavirus, Dr. Immanuel has made Cameroonians proud,” Linus Agbor, a refugee in Cross River who hails from the same southwest Cameroon region as the Houston-based doctor, told The Daily Beast. “Cameroonians need to celebrate her.”