SALT LAKE CITY — Utah will buy 200,000 treatments of malaria drugs widely touted by President Donald Trump for treating the new coronavirus despite warnings from doctors that the medications shouldn’t be used until more testing is done, state officials said Tuesday.
The state will purchase the treatments that include hydroxychloroquine from a Utah-based compounding pharmacy called Meds in Motion, said Tom Hudachko, Utah Department of Health spokesman. The company, which that has been promoting use of the drugs along with several Republican state lawmakers since mid-March, was selected under emergency procurement rules that negates the usual bid process.
The amount that Meds in Motion will be paid hasn’t been finalized because the contract is not done, Hudachko. He estimates the cost will be in the millions, and said about three-fourths of the cost would be covered by federal funds.
The news comes on the same day that results from a study done at U.S. veterans hospitals cast more doubt on the efficacy of the treatment. The drugs showed no benefit among 368 patients at the hospitals, and there were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care, researchers reported.
The nationwide study was not a rigorous experiment but it’s the largest look so far of hydroxychloroquine with or without the antibiotic azithromycin for COVID-19. The study was posted on an online site for researchers and has has not been reviewed by other scientists. Grants from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia paid for the work.
Dozens of studies are underway around the world. In Utah, a pair of clinical studies are underway by the University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare to determine if the drugs are useful against the virus. Researchers hope to eventually test 2,300 patients who have tested positive or show symptoms, and could have some early results in about three months.
The likelihood is that hydroxychloroquine does not have an effect on coronavirus patients, said Dr. Samuel Brown, a critical care researcher at Intermountain Healthcare, earlier this month when they launched the studies.
Under Utah’s plan, the drugs will be compounded locally and provided free to patients who have a prescription from a physician confirming they have an active case of COVID-19. Each of the 200,000 treatments contains a seven-day supply, Hudachko said.
The plan was first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe life-threatening illness, including pneumonia, and death.
On April 1, some 50 infectious disease doctors and pharmacists sent a letter to doctors around the state warning about the potential risks of using the drugs for coronavirus patients.
“We feel strongly that unproven drugs need to be evaluated in a controlled manner that will allow us to determine if they in fact provide more benefit than harm,” they wrote.
Dr. Andrew Pavia, one of those doctors, said Tuesday that state officials didn’t ask the doctors about the plan. He said there is already an adequate supply of the drugs in Utah.
Utah House Democrats criticized using any state funds for an “unproven drug that may ultimately do more harm than good.”
“There is absolutely no need for us to spend money on this drug now,” they said in a statement.
In other coronavirus developments:
- Utah reported four more coronavirus deaths Tuesday, all over age 60 and two of them nursing home residents. Half all the state’s 32 deaths related to the virus have been nursing home residents, said state epidemiologist Angela Dunn.
“This number, while tragic, it could be a lot higher,” she said, recognizing facilities that have been preparing for an outbreak since early January.
When a case is confirmed at a nursing home, a mobile test lab comes there and tests all residents and staff so infected people can be separated to keep it from spreading. The state is working on doing more proactive testing at facilities where no cases have been confirmed yet, she said.
- Some postponed elective surgeries can resume, over a month after they stopped to conserve protective gear, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said. Hospitals now have enough to meet short-term needs and growth in new coronavirus hospitalizations has decreased, officials said. Herbert first mentioned the step during a visit to South Jordan medical-device maker Merit Medical, which is now making a coronavirus sample and collection kit. As Utah increases its testing capacity, anyone with a single symptom can be tested.
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