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Panic over unproven treatment for COVID-19 causes fears over drug supply to treat lupus

Lynn Hammond of St. John's takes Plaquenil to manage the effects of lupus. (Dave Howells Photo)
Lynn Hammond of St. John's takes Plaquenil to manage the effects of lupus. (Dave Howells Photo)
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

On March 19, the president of the United States caused an uproar when he touted on live TV a drug he felt was a “game-changer” for the treatment of COVID-19.

The drug was hydroxychloroquine, a long-established treatment for malaria that is now used in the management of autoimmune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It is often sold under the brand name Plaquenil.

At the time, one small French study found the drug worked in combination with an antibiotic to lessen the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. A more recent Chinese study found the opposite.

Nonetheless, individuals and entrepreneurs across the country scrambled to stockpile the drug, causing pharmacies to take measures to prevent hoarding. The Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked its approval process to allow compassionate use this week.


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This sort of knee-jerk panic makes people like Lynn Hammond nervous.

Hammond, a communications specialist in St. John’s, uses Plaquenil to alleviate joint pain she suffers from having lupus.

“I’d been watching these media stories over the past few weeks about Plaquenil and I’m on several Facebook groups … and internationally people are afraid that they’re not going to be able to get their medication,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Adding to her concerns was the decision of the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board to limit prescriptions to 30 days at a time.


“If I stopped this medication today, within eight weeks, I would have difficulty walking up and down stairs. I would have challenges dressing myself.” — Lynn Hammond


The board has said its measures represent an effort to manage the availability of medicines at a time when supplies can be erratic and the public may react irrationality.

“We recognize that the 30-day supply limit may be a difficult adjustment,” Janice Audeau, president of the Pharmacy Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, said in a recent statement. “However, by appropriately managing inventory today, we are reducing the risk that patients will not be able to access their medication in the future.”

Hammond has been dealing with the symptoms of lupus for much of her life, even before she was diagnosed a decade ago.

Known as the “disease with a thousand faces,” lupus results from the body’s immune system attacking its own organs, causing inflammation and sometimes more serious complications.

“For people with lupus who have a lot of joint pain like myself, Plaquenil is really the equalizer for that. Without it, my mobility would be severely limited,” Hammond said.

“If I stopped this medication today, within eight weeks, I would have difficulty walking up and down stairs. I would have challenges dressing myself.”

But Hammond said she would be quite happy if the drug did show promise in treating COVID-19.

“If it’s useful for COVID-19, that would be fantastic. However, people also need to realize that this is a serious drug with serious side effects, and people should not be self-medicating.”

In a media briefing last week, Health Minister John Haggie warned that trials of the drug are in their very early stages.

“This is an unproven drug. It’s not traditionally used for this kind of thing,” he said, adding that he still has an open mind.

“If it looks promising, then I’m sure our clinicians will be interested in it, and if in the fullness of time it doesn’t, then that will become apparent, too.”

Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health care for The Telegram.


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