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In our opinion: Utah’s rush to buy hydroxychloroquine lacked any definable purpose

This Monday, April 6, 2020, file photo shows an arrangement of Hydroxychloroquine pills in Las Vegas. At least 13 states have obtained a total of more than 10 million doses of malaria drugs to treat COVID-19 patients despite warnings from doctors that more tests are needed before the medications that President Trump once fiercely promoted should be used to help people with the coronavirus.
Associated Press

Given how little is known about COVID-19, the battle against it has at times involved hunches and anecdotal evidence. But as knowledge is gained, practices should adjust, and the Food and Drug Administration’s warning Friday about the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine should be an example.

Gov. Gary Herbert did the right thing Friday by announcing the state health department no longer will seek to buy up to 200,000 doses of the drugs. We hope this puts an end to a confusing few days of miscommunication within state government, in which the governor said he was unaware a large purchase of the drugs already had taken place.

The FDA said the drugs should be administered only in hospitals and clinical trials because of potential side effects, including serious heart troubles that seem to be linked to the simultaneous use of azithromycin, a commonly prescribed antibiotic.

Much remains unknown about both the virus and its speculative treatments, but this latest information should give pause to the rush for the drug. Little definitive evidence exists to prove its effectiveness against COVID-19, despite anecdotal examples of success.

The study also ought to inform the actions of over-eager Utah lawmakers, as well. They passed HB4001 on Thursday, over the objections of the few lawmakers with medical expertise, authorizing $6 million for purchase of the drugs. This is on top of a separate bill passed last week that authorized $2 million for that purpose.

We hope those plans will be put on hold, as well.

The Deseret News learned Thursday that the governor’s office, unbeknownst to the state health department, purchased 20,000 doses of the drugs in late March for $800,000. The health department, meanwhile, was negotiating for a separate 200,000-dose order.

This sounds like a gross failure to communicate that ought to alarm taxpayers.

We are sympathetic to state officials wanting to get ahead of increased demand for the drugs in March, when even less was known about their effectiveness or the virus, itself. A study out of France, which since has been criticized by the International Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy as not meeting acceptable standards, seemed to indicate the drugs might be effective as treatments.

The drugs were developed for the treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Patients with those ailments have worried that the rush to use these drugs for COVID-19 would result in shortages.

The most disturbing part of Utah’s rush to obtain hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine is the lack of communication. The state’s COVID-19 Community Task Force ought to have told the state health department about its $800,000 order.

And state lawmakers should not operate in a vacuum as they seek to use taxpayer dollars to build a separate stockpile.

The justification for these purchases seems to be a fear that the state might be caught short if the drugs prove to be effective treatments. Certainly, with thousands of people sick and the death toll, as of Friday, nearing 40 in Utah and surpassing 50,000 nationwide, there is an urgency to find any sort of treatment or relief. A vaccine remains at least a year away, according to experts. But regardless of the drugs’ alleged effectiveness in certain cases, it should be clear now that they don’t provide widespread miracle cures.

The rush to obtain hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in Utah seems to have been pursued without any cohesive, strategic goal or definable purpose. Utah taxpayers, and the many people who have contracted the virus, deserve better.