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Jury still out on anti-malaria drug's effectiveness against COVID-19

President Trump has called an anti-malaria drug a 'game-changer' in the fight against the novel coronavirus. An EVMS infectious disease expert is not yet convinced.

NORFOLK, Va. — Finding a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is literally a race against the clock.

In the fight against the coronavirus, doctors are eyeing chloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, and hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus.

“The data so far is very mixed," said Dr. Edward Oldfield, an infectious disease expert at EVMS. "For right now, what I’ve seen that’s published is very conflicting. It’s definitely not, ‘I want to be on it right now.’”

Oldfield says the issue right now is these drugs are only being tested as a COVID-19 treatment. Those tests are only being done in small groups so there’s not enough clear data as to whether they work.

“There’s a lot of people buying it, but not a lot of good data yet. I’m waiting for those big multi-center trials out of China before I make a final decision,” he said.

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Oldfield also warns that as the medical community looks to these drugs as a possible cure for COVID-19, there’s an unintended downside: it’s putting a strain on the people who are already prescribed these medications.

"It’s gone so far that [health care company] Kaiser Permanente has actually taken hydroxychloroquine or Plaquenil [its brand name] and it's not letting rheumatoid arthritis patients refill it so it can be saved to treat patients with COVID-19,” he said.

While the jury is out on the drugs as an effective treatment for COVID-19, Oldfield says doctors in the Commonwealth are still prescribing the meds.

“Virginia is definitely either using chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine up-front. It looks like hydroxychloroquine is more potent than chloroquine and so definitely that’s the front line.”

Until an FDA-approved treatment for COVID-19 is hopefully discovered, Dr. Oldfield stresses we all need to realize the virus remains a real risk.

“I think this is all-hands-on-deck," he said. "Everybody needs to pitch in everybody needs to play a part. The most important thing is social isolation. People need to stay home.”

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