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As White House touts hydroxychloroquine as possible COVID-19 treatment, lupus patients concerned about supply

Hydroxychloroquine began as a treatment for malaria and is also used widely to treat lupus and arthritis.

ATLANTA — There is an international focus from governments and drug companies on developing vaccines and medicines to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

President Donald Trump, in the Coronavirus Task Force briefings from the White House, continues to mention a drug called hydroxychloroquine - which is currently used to treat lupus, arthritis and malaria - as a possible treatment for COVID-19.

Buford, Georgia 18-year-old Jillian Zaklikowski told 11Alive she keeps her lupus diagnosis in-check by taking hydroxychloroquine daily. 

"I still get the joint swelling, joint pain, and I have a certain type [of lupus] that clots my blood. So, I've had a stroke because of it," she described. 

The teen's mother said she recently called a list of pharmacies in the Buford area as she tried to refill her daughter's prescription. She only found one pharmacy with the drug in-stock, so she bought a two-month supply. 

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Her mom fears she won't be able to find another refill, though, after pharmacists told her they have been trying to order the drug - but their orders haven't been filled.

"The concern is that it is going to start being used for COVID, and people with lupus that rely on it day-to-day to - literally - to keep them alive are going to be pushed to the back burner," Carrie Zaklikowski said. 

Dr. Christopher Bland, with the University of Georgia's College of Pharmacy, said there is extensive research about the drug being used to battle malaria, lupus and arthritis. 

"It has been used very effectively," Bland said. "It has a lot of great data for patients within those disease states that really take it on a daily basis."    

But for now, the same extensive research doesn't exist for COVID-19, given the virus' still-novel status. 

"There is some, what we call in vitro - or just some test tube data - that suggests it might have some anti-viral properties associated with that. That is where it has got brought into some of these discussions of, maybe it would work or maybe it wouldn't," Bland explained. "So far most of the data we have specific to COVID-19 has been very limited."

NBC News reports the FDA fast-tracked hydroxychloroquine clinical trials, which should help with developing information on how the drug interacts with COVID-19.

President Donald Trump though has already touted the pill as a possible treatment on several occasions.

"It could be a game-changer," the president said. 

On Tuesday, Rep. Doug Collins tweeted, "Proud to have worked with Amneal Pharmaceuticals, Inc. to help secure 200,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine for Georgia Department of Public Health! This medication could potentially save thousands of lives across our state."

Collins' office tells 11Alive the secured doses for COVID-19 were in addition to Amneal's usual production of the drug and shouldn't take away supply from those needing the drug for other conditions. 

On Wednesday Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said as the state receives a donation of 200,000 doses, she is aware of non-COVID-19 patients struggling to fill their prescriptions.

"It is specifically for hospitalized COVID patients. That is the limited window through which the FDA has approved it, for this purpose," Toomey said. "As you know I'm concerned about the patients statewide that we have with rheumatoid arthritis and with other auto-immune diseases who can't get access to this."

"My plea to physicians is always, ensure we have an adequate supply of these drugs for the lupus patients and rheumatoid arthritis patients who depend on having access to this in our communities, even as we use these medications through the stockpile in a limited way for the hospitalized COVID patients," Toomey said. 

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Bland mentioned using the drug to treat COVID-19 comes with red flags.

"A lot of the doses that are being evaluated for COVID-19, some of these are higher than what we use for rheumatoid arthritis," Bland said.

An increased dosage could increase the rare, but potentially serious side effects of hydroxychloroquine. Bland said currently the drug should only be used for COVID-19 patients admitted to a hospital.

"There have been some patients that have had some of those cardiac arrhythmia side effects and they have had to stop the drug," Bland mentioned. "There is no way to monitor for those side effects. If you have an arrhythmia, the only way you know is when it happens. For that reason, I haven't been very keen on using it in outpatients."

As clinical trials are carried out, the Zaklikowski family only hope pharmacies will have the drug back-in-stock before their supply at home runs out.

"At that point, it is going to become critical we find the medication for her," Carrie Zaklikowski said. 


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