Researchers Look for COVID-19 Treatments While Political Leaders Debate How Quickly It’s Safe to Use Them
By Ned Potter
Somewhere, doctors say, there may be treatments for the coronavirus – maybe even an existing medication that can help slow the spread or protect those who become ill. In hospitals and laboratories around the world, including some in Westchester, researchers are hard at work.
Two drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, have leapt into the headlines, and some early, very limited research from France and China suggests that they may be helpful in preventing coronavirus cases or healing patients who have become ill. The French team reported the medications were made more effective if patients were also given azithromycin, an antibiotic. Both teams conceded their work was rushed: the French study followed only 20 patients; the Chinese study was limited to laboratory samples.
But the medications have become highly politicized, promoted publicly by President Trump and some of his allies, and treated skeptically by people elsewhere on the political spectrum. The issue came to the surface when hydroxychloroquine was touted by a California lawyer in a March 18 interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. “It’s very powerful,” said the president at a White House briefing the next day. “We’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.”
That came as news both to public health officials and researchers. In a summary of the progress of research on coronavirus, the U.S. Society of Critical Care Medicine said: “There is insufficient evidence to issue a recommendation on the use of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine in critically ill adults with COVID-19.”
Nevertheless, there have been widespread reports that people, including medical professionals, are stockpiling the drugs – bad for the patients with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis who use them regularly. New York State, citing the risk of shortages, has banned pharmacies from filling new prescriptions if people are clearly hoarding. Other states imposed their own restrictions. And while the medications have been used safely for decades, they can have side effects. They can, if mismanaged, affect heart rhythms, cause eye damage and prompt suicidal thoughts. An Arizona man died and his wife was placed in intensive care after they took tablets labeled chloroquine phosphate – tablets meant for cleaning fish tanks, not for human consumption.
A family physician with offices in Monsey and Monroe, N.Y. has widely publicized what he claims has been 100-percent success using hydroxychloroquine on infected patients in the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel. The doctor, Vladimir Zelenko, said in a letter and on Sean Hannity’s radio show that he has treated some 350 patients there. “I can definitively report that we have had zero deaths, zero hospitalizations and zero intubations in Kiryas Joel since Thursday,” he wrote. Public health authorities were skeptical: Orange County, in which Kiryas Joel and Monroe are located, reported only 68 people testing positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday.
Looking for options
Governor Cuomo said he would support rapid testing of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to see if they can be used in COVID-19 cases. He separately said New York State would pursue testing to see if blood plasma from patients who had recovered from the virus could be injected into other patients. The hope is that antibodies developed by one person’s immune system would be effective in others’ bloodstreams.
Regeneron, headquartered in Tarrytown, is among many pharmaceutical companies looking for alternatives. It says it will soon begin testing of its drug Kevzara – already approved for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis – as a treatment for severe coronavirus cases. And it has begun research to find preventive antibodies. But testing could take months. Many doctors and elected officials say they believe hydroxychloroquine offers hope. But they split – often on ideological lines – over whether hope is enough.
“We have a drug with an excellent safety profile but limited clinical outcomes—and no better alternatives until long after this disaster peaks,” wrote Drs. Jeff Colyer and Daniel Hinthorn in The Wall Street Journal. Dr. Colyer, a former Republican governor of Kansas, was recently appointed by the Trump administration to chair a panel on rural medicine.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who is a Democrat, fired back at the president, without naming him, on Tuesday. “I’m sure any elected official would love to be able to say we have found the cure,” he said. “And having found the cure, we can disseminate it to people, and we can put the economy exactly back where it was a month ago. That would be something any of us would love to say. But you can’t say it if you don’t know that it’s true.”
Colyer and Hinthorn said hydroxychloroquine “isn’t a silver bullet” but that it would be a mistake not to try it quickly. Battle lines have been drawn politically, even in a realm where everyone says science ought to prevail. Still, we must decide—and decide soon: Do we err on the side of safety? Or, with a clock ticking, do we take a chance?
The author, writer and longtime CBS and ABC correspondent specializing in science, technology and medicine, is a contributor to The Hudson Independent.