MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) —  President Trump has said the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine “could be a game-changer” in the fight against COVID-19. At the same time, some of his scientific advisors, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, say they can’t yet point to evidence that it definitely works.

So, what is hydroxychloroquine? Good Question.

“Hydroxychloroquine is an old-school anti-malarial drug that was first approved by the FDA in 1955,” said Dr. David Boulware, a professor of Medicine in the division of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

His team has been working non-stop since March 9th to research whether hydroxychloroquine could not only prevent COVID-19, but also shorten and lessen the symptoms once the illness first strikes.

The University of Minnesota trial is one of several across the country looking at this drug to treat or prevent COVID-19. It’s now used primarily in the U.S. to treat patients with lupus.

“There’s a lot of excitement that comes from the highest levels, obviously, about hydroxychloroquine,” Dr. Boulware said. “There’s more much more excitement than there is data, which is a slight problem.”

There have been some smaller studies published on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and its effect on patients with COVID-19. According to Dr. Boulware, those studies were small, limited and did not include the controls necessary to be considered well-done or definitive.

“There’s a hint, there is a promising thing, but no real actual data to suggest it works,” Dr. Boulware said. “We’re trying to prove it works.”

Last month, the FDA approved the use of hydroxychloroquine for “compassionate use” to treat COVID-19.

WCCO reached out to Twin Cities hospitals asking, even with limited data, if patients with COVID-19 were being treated with hydroxychloroquine.

M Health Fairview said, as a system, it is not recommending hydroxychloroquine treatment outside of clinical trials.

Allina said hydroxychloroquine is part of their COVID-19 treatment guidelines, but is currently limited to inpatient only and must have an infectious disease physician consulted to prescribe it.

“We are presented with an unprecedented problem for doctors,” said Dr. Michael Schnaus, a hospitalist at Methodist and Regions Hospitals as well as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “We are not only facing an epidemic, but we are also on a time crunch.”

Dr. Schnaus said COVID-19 patients in the HealthPartners system are being given hydroxychloroquine after serious discussions with their doctors and a panel of experts, including clinicians, hospitalists and pharmacists.

He said the healthcare providers are trying to figure out medications and treatments in real-time. Right now, only hospitalized HealthPartners patients with critical, or what could become critical, COVID-19 illness are being treated with the drug.

“The protocol is constantly in flux,” Dr. Schnaus said.

Hydroxychloroquine does come with some side effects, which are often mild. According to Dr. Boulware, there are concerns about allergic reactions and heart rhythms.

“But, if you give it enough patients, hundreds of thousands or millions of patients, you’re going to have some serious side effects and some people will be harmed,” Dr. Boulware said.

Another concern is that the run on the drug could take away the medicine for the lupus patients who need it and for which experts know it works.

Dr. Boulware hopes to have more data on prevention of COVID-19 within weeks.

“I’m hopeful, but I’m also a skeptic,” he said.

If you have recently been closely exposed to a COVID-19 case or have early symptoms of the disease, Dr. Boulware’s research team at the University of Minnesota is looking for more participants. People can find more information by clicking here or emailing covid19@umn.edu.

Heather Brown

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