On Sunday, Katherine Rowland, a pharmacist in Eugene, Oregon, got a call from a dentist who wanted her to fill prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that President Donald Trump has hyped as a possible treatment for the new coronavirus.
As Rowland wrote in an outraged Twitter thread, the medication wasn’t for the dentist’s patients: He wanted it for himself, his wife, and friends. She refused to fill it.
“I have patients with lupus that have been on HCQ for years and now can’t get it because it’s on backorder,” she explained.
The dentist wasn’t an isolated case. Other medical providers around the country have jumped on the hoarding bandwagon, trying to amass a supply of a drug that is not yet proven to work on COVID-19 and that should be reserved for the sickest patients if it is.
Another pharmacist in South Dakota working for a large pharmacy chain, who was not authorized to speak on the matter, told The Daily Beast that one doctor attempted to call in a prescription for 480 tablets of hydroxychloroquine, also known by its brand name Plaquenil.
The self-prescribing has left patients with autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, whose day-to-day lives depend on the medication, in a panic. It’s also prompted pharmacy regulators to crack down on unnecessary prescriptions.
“The State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy has received reports of a significant increase in the prescribing of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak,” the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy told The Daily Beast.
“It was a mix of reports of prescribers trying to obtain prescriptions for themselves and staff as well as an increased demand from patients after reading news reports.”
Erin Fox, senior director of drug information at University of Utah Health, told The Daily Beast that early last week, its retail pharmacies noted they started to get prescriptions “from physicians writing for friends and family, in unusual amounts.”
“We didn’t fill them,” Fox said. “We worked really quickly to make that formal and let people know we would not be filling these, we have to save products for our patients who take this as a chronic medicine.”
“We don’t have a lot of good data that these medications are helpful for Covid-19,” Fox added. “These treatments do have side effects and they’re not entirely benign.”
In his press briefings, Trump has repeatedly touted the so-far anecdotal benefits of hydroxychloroquine, combined with the antibiotic azithromycin, in treating coronavirus patients.
Drug researchers and medical experts say that hydroxychloroquine requires further research before being implemented on a wide scale. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that a trial to test the drug will begin on Tuesday.
But Trump has not heeded the calls for more research, and has continued to use his megaphone to fuel demand. On Monday, he tweeted a New York Post article with the headline, “Florida man with coronavirus says drug touted by Trump saved his life.”
Dr. Jack Turban, resident physician in psychiatry at The Massachusetts General Hospital, told The Daily Beast that physicians and pharmacists are worried “people are jumping to the treatment too quickly without proper consideration and medical monitoring.” Turban also stressed that these medications are not benign. “They can cause serious psychiatric side effects including psychosis and suicidal thoughts,” he said. “In some cases, they could also have significant effects on heart function, leading to fatal arrhythmia.”
And in a particularly grim twist on the panic, an Arizona man died and his wife was critically injured when they ingested chloroquine phosphate, an additive commonly used at aquariums to clean fish tanks, thinking it could help treat or prevent Covid-19.
The run on the drug is already having consequences for other sick Americans. Numerous patients with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other chronic conditions have told The Daily Beast they are facing a shortage.
Erin Houlian, 39, lives in New York and also regularly takes it for rheumatoid arthritis and sjögren's syndrome. She received a message from her pharmacy that hydroxychloroquine is on a nationwide backorder and cannot be filled at this time.
Kate Berring, 34, of Princeton, New Jersey, was down to her last three pills of hydroxychloroquine when she was alerted that her medication was out of stock.
“It never occurred to me that my medication would be directly affected in such a direct and specific way,” Berring told The Daily Beast. In a panic, her family and friends immediately started calling pharmacies around the country asking if they had hydroxychloroquine in stock.
“As I was calling around to pharmacies, I started being asked if I was a Covid-19 patient,” Berring said. “Some pharmacists I talked to, the person on the other end laughed when they heard me ask for Plaquenil, almost like they had already heard that request like 30 times.”
“This medication has given me my life back,” Berring said. “I am non-functional without it.”
Fox, the University of Utah official, said the situation was “frustrating.”
“But it’s human nature to really want to do something. You want something to work,” she said.