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State setting up access to malaria drugs seen as treating new coronavirus

The FDA has linked Zantac to cancer and is advising stores to immediately pull it from their shelves. Adobe Stock photo

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns who pass an online screening would be able to get malaria drugs at a pharmacy to treat the new coronavirus under a standing order currently being drafted, Utah Department of Health Deputy Director Dr. Marc E. Babitz said Monday.

“I’ve seen enough evidence of benefits to make it worth trying,” Babitz, a family physician, told the Deseret News, adding he doesn’t agree with critics who say there hasn’t been enough study yet on the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in treating the symptoms of COVID-19.

“In a situation like this that we’re in today, I disagree with my academic colleagues. If we weren’t in a crisis, if this wasn’t a major concern, a worldwide pandemic, I’d say, ‘You know what, let’s wait. Let’s wait. Let’s find some people who have this. Let’s do that double-blind, placebo controlled, they call it crossover trial,’” he said.

The drugs, also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, don’t prevent someone from catching the deadly virus, but for those that have it, Babitz said, “there’s some preliminary evidence that it will slow things down to give your body a chance to develop better immunity and help prevent complications.”

The standing order, which would need to be signed by the health department’s executive director, Dr. Joseph Miner, would allow Utahns to bypass their own doctors and use a new online screening tool that’s still being finalized to determine if they can receive the drugs directly from a pharmacist, Babitz said.

Currently, the drugs can be prescribed for off-label use. President Donald Trump has urged they be deployed, comments that have sparked panic-buying and overdoses around the world, as well as warnings about their use in combating the effects of the virus, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal published Monday.

But Babitz said the drugs would be taken for between five and seven days and have a “very, very low” risk for patients. He said the health department still has to resolve legal issues between the state and the company that runs the screening tool, as well as details of how this would work with pharmacies.

“We need to do it responsibly, so there are issues. But we’re working as hard as we can to iron them out. Our goal actually was to have the documents signed today,” he said. Besides the standing order for the medicines to be dispensed, there needs to be an emergency rule in place and a memorandum of understanding with the company.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert said an announcement could come this week.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is also backing what he sees as a way to ease the pandemic’s strain on hospitals as the number of cases in Utah continues to climb. Adams and a group of state and business leaders held a news conference last week about the potential of the drugs.

“We need some good news. We need some hope. I believe this is good news,” he said.

Dan Richards, a pharmacist who has helped put together the plan for getting the drugs to Utahns, said close to $1 million has been spent acquiring the raw chemical powder that can be compounded into the drug. For now, he said, it’s a humanitarian effort.

“We’ll figure it out on the back end,” said Richards, the owner of Meds in Motion, a chain of pharmacies with five locations in Utah. “We are not a state-appointed, organized task force. We are just a bunch of people who raised our hands and said something had to be done.”

He acknowledged there is some doubt about the drugs.

“Not everyone’s on board yet and that’s tough,” Richards said, adding there just isn’t enough time for the usual medical studies. “This is not the cure. This is not the solution. This is the best available treatment based on the knowledge we have.”