It’s been touted as a “miracle drug” in the fight against COVID-19. But experts across Canada are now warning against the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of the disease until further scientific research proves that it helps.
Still, thousands of Quebec patients are now being denied treatment due to an anticipated shortage of the prescription drug.
“Is it really being used in studies on COVID-19 patients, which I think would be very appropriate?” said rheumatologist Dr. Michel Zummer. “Or is it being stockpiled or used otherwise?” he asked, after 300 of his patients were contacted by their pharmacists and told they can no longer fill prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine.
Quebec pharmacists are now restricting the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine after Quebec’s national institute of excellence in health and social services (INESSS) issued a collective prescription to prepare for a possible shortage of the drug.
It’s currently being used to treat patients with COVID-19 despite it not being approved by Health Canada for this purpose.
“The issue is we don’t know is how long there will be this shortage of medication, if there really is a shortage of medication because we really don’t know what happened to this medication, where it went,” said Zummer.
The former Chief of Rheumatology at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital and current co-chair of the Arthritis Alliance of Canada is demanding answers from the Quebec government after an estimated 300 of his patients had been denied treatment.
“Personally I have asked questions and my association has asked questions,” said Zummer. “We don’t know what the government is doing about trying to secure more medication and when this medication will be available for our patients.”
A Boucherville-based pharmaceutical company, one of a handful in Canada that manufactures the medication, donated one million doses to hospitals two weeks ago in the fight against COVID-19.
The company insists production hasn’t stopped as it is deemed an essential service, and that the decision to restrict the medication was out of their hands.
“Our role is to supply the medication but we’re trusting the good judgment and training of the health-care workers to decide what to do with these medications.”
Under the current restrictions established by INESSS, only Quebec’s most vulnerable patients are allowed to access treatment, including people with systemic lupus erythematosus, pregnant women and patients under 18 with juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
A 58-year old mother of three who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis nearly two decades ago claims it’s the only drug that alleviates her excruciating pain. She’s desperately trying to reach her doctor since the available alternatives for her condition don’t sound promising.
“Everybody is scared and everybody is stressed about this,” Danielle Sullivan told Global News. “The [doctor’s] secretary said that, yes, there is an option, but it’s a medication that’s really expensive.
“It’s about $1,000 a month so it’s not an option for me.”
According to Zummer, patients may not have access to other promising medications since some require “special-access criteria,” meaning patients need to have active disease and symptoms which many do not when the disease is under control.
He hopes the Quebec government will soon provide answers and affordable alternatives for patients before they relapse.
“Usually if the medication is stopped for a week or two there should not be a problem. Hydroxychloroquine is stored in the body for quite a long time,” said Zummer.
“But sooner or later, patients’ arthritis will flare.”