Chloroquine is a drug used to treat malaria and other conditions, and the President tweeted recently that it should “be put in use IMMEDIATELY” to treat COVID-19. Unfortunately that’s not how experts feel about it, so please for the love of god do not ask your doctor friend to sneak you a prescription.
What is chloroquine?
Chloroquine and the related drug hydroxychloroquine are best known as anti-malarial medications. Malaria is caused by a microscopic parasite that hitches a ride in mosquitoes, and chloroquine can kill that parasite once it’s in your body.
It can kill some other parasites too, in humans and other animals. Chloroquine phosphate is commonly used in aquaculture to treat parasites in fish.
Hydroxychloroquine is also used to treat autoimmune diseases including lupus.
Both medications can be toxic and can cause eye and vision problems, so as with any treatment, it’s important to balance the risks of side effects with the benefits of the drug for your condition. These are prescription drugs, so you’d talk this over with your doctor if you have a condition that chloroquine can treat.
Can chloroquine treat COVID-19?
Maybe, but we don’t know yet. There are a lot of research papers these days in which doctors are reporting initial findings about COVID-19, but in a more usual scenario those findings would have more time to be reviewed, tested, and discussed among scientists before anybody makes any recommendations about what is worthwhile to use.
Unfortunately, these days it seems anyone who hears about a preprint suddenly considers themselves an expert.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2020
It turns out that the study the President cited on chloroquine in COVID-19 patients is far from conclusive. For one thing, it’s extremely small. For another, several patients who received the medication got worse but were not counted in the results.
Major issue w/ hydroxychlorquine + azithromycin study:
23% of treatment group excluded.
- 3 went to ICU
- 1 died
- 1 got better & left
- 1 stopped meds
0 in control group excluded.
You can't just stop following those who die or become critically ill. Why?
— Mama Doctor Jones | Danielle Jones, MD (@MamaDoctorJones) March 21, 2020
Over at Buzzfeed, Dan Vergano has more details on the evidence surrounding the excitement for this drug. In brief: it’s underwhelming, and the drug’s side effects are concerning. We don’t know for sure if it works, and it may turn out to do more harm than good.
What if I want to stock up, just in case?
In the past week, people have been so desperate for the drug that pharmacies are running short. Some states have issued orders restricting access to the drug, but they may already be too late. I’ve seen lupus patients on twitter saying they are having trouble getting their usual prescriptions, and pharmacists with stories like this:
Well it finally happened to me.
A dentist just tried to call in scripts for hydroxychloroquine + azithromycin for himself, his wife, & another couple (friends).
I have patients with lupus that have been on HCQ for YEARS and now can’t get it because it’s on backorder.
— Katherine Rowland (@DRxKatherine) March 22, 2020
Yes, it’s a prescription drug, but some doctors are writing scripts for themselves and friends. And people who can’t get prescription chloroquine are buying up the version used in fishtanks. As I was researching this post, I kept coming across chloroquine pages on aquarium supply websites...all out of stock.
This isn’t just a problem for fish: a man died and his wife is in critical condition after taking chloroquine phosphate that they had originally bought for their koi pond. Please, please don’t take fish medications and don’t beg your doctor friends for unnecessary prescriptions.