By Michael Erman
NEW YORK (Reuters) – An old malaria treatment that has been tried with some success against the new coronavirus and was touted by U.S. President Donald Trump at a news briefing earlier on Thursday is in short supply as demand surges amid the fast-spreading outbreak.
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), which maintains a list of drugs in shortage independent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list, added the generic malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to its list on Thursday. Four out of eight manufacturers of the drug are currently in shortage, it said.
The new coronavirus, which causes the highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory illness, emerged in December in Wuhan, China and has spread throughout the world.
There are currently no vaccines or treatments approved for the disease, but researchers are studying existing treatments and working on experimental ones. At the moment, most patients can only receive supportive care.
Erin Fox, senior director of drug information at University of Utah Health, who maintains ASHP’s shortages list, said pharmacists are unable to get the drug or fill prescriptions in full.
Fox said that University of Utah’s 12 retail pharmacies are not filling prescriptions for prophylactic use, and are preserving their stocks for inpatient needs.
The FDA could not be reached for comment, but hydroxychloroquine is not currently on its drugs in shortage list.
Trump called on U.S. health regulators to expedite potential therapies aimed at treating COVID-19, including hydroxychloroquine.
“We’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately,” Trump said of the malaria drug at a White House briefing.
RUN ON PHARMACIES
Fox and the FDA have been watching for drug shortages that could be due to supply chain issues with manufacturing in China and India. But surging demand in recent weeks is the issue with the malaria drug, which can also treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, according to online pharmacy, Honeybee Health.
Its co-Chief Executive Jessica Nouhavandi sent a letter to prescribers earlier this week, urging them to be aware of potential hoarding of the drug that could deprives those who really need it.
On Thursday, Nouhavandi said demand was its highest yet after Trump’s comments.
Jeff Bartone, who owns Hock’s Pharmacy in Vandalia, Ohio, said he purchased five bottles of hydroxychloroquine this morning, but within an hour the company that distributes it to his pharmacy had run out.
He said four backup prescription drug wholesalers were out of the drug as well.
Bartone said he does not typically stock large amounts of the drug because it is not widely prescribed.
Mylan NV <MYL.O> – one of the manufacturers ASHP said was in shortage – said it was ramping up production of the drug and expects to be in a position to begin supplying it more broadly in mid-April.
It said with the raw materials on hand it can make 50 million tablets to potentially treat more than 1.5 million patients.
Bayer AG <BAYGn.DE> said it would donate 3 million tablets of Resochin – a closely related drug known generically as chloroquine phosphate. Chloroquine is also in shortage, according to the ASHP.
Online pharmacy Valisure said it too was unable to order any chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine as of Thursday from its four distributors.
Valisure Chief Executive David Light said other potential treatments are also becoming difficult to obtain.
“Kaletra and losartan are being rationed, meaning we are only allowed to order limited quantities at a time,” he said.
Kaletra, a combination HIV treatment sold by AbbVie <ABBN.N>, and the generic blood pressure drug losartan have been considered as potential treatments for the virus, although Chinese investigators reported this week that Kaletra failed to improve outcomes for seriously ill COVID-19 patients.
(Reporting by Michael Erman; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Bill Berkrot)