Medical professionals worry about lupus drug supply amid COVID-19 pandemic

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – While many people are hopeful that a known drug might be an effective treatment for novel coronavirus, health officials say it has also created a potential crisis for patients with lupus and other autoimmune diseases.

In clinics like the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s Rheumatology Center of Excellence, physicians routinely prescribe hydroxychloroquine to patients suffering from autoimmune disorders.

Recently, national leaders say the drug may be a potential treatment for COVID-19. Now, officials worry that the supply of the drug may be threatened.

“This is a medicine we consider critical,” said Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., a rheumatologist who treats hundreds of patients suffering from autoimmune disease at OMRF. “It’s disease-stabilizing for lupus, and going off the medication increases risk for flares and other health issues. It’s one we think people should stay on forever—even if they become pregnant—so it’s important that the supply chain remains in place.”

Reports from China and France suggest that the drugs, originally developed as treatments for malaria, help patients suffering from COVID-19. However, experts warn that more testing needs to be done.

“We often see early results in drug trials that seem promising but do not pan out in larger, more scientific trials, so it is best not to overhype these drugs right now,” said Joan Merrill, M.D., a rheumatologist and lupus researcher at OMRF who also serves as chief advisor, clinical development, to the Lupus Foundation of America.

Officials say there are already shortages of hydroxychloroquine and worry that patients with conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis may have trouble filling prescriptions if others who don’t need the drug try to stockpile it.

On Saturday, Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered a limit to prescriptions of the drug “to ensure there is adequate supply for patients who need it most.”

Health experts say healthy people should not be taking the drug.

“Although antimalarials are well understood and can be used safely and effectively in people with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, the doses reported in early reports on COVID-19 are higher than commonly used for these chronic conditions, and little is known about risks of widespread use and drug interactions in an elderly, disabled population,”Merrill said.

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