Utah joins global push to study impact of anti-malaria drug

This Monday, April 6, 2020, photo shows an arrangement of hydroxychloroquine pills in Las Vegas. President Donald Trump and his administration kept up their out-sized promotion Monday of an malaria drug not yet officially approved for fighting the new coronavirus, even though scientists say more testing is needed before it’s proven safe and effective against COVID-19. Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro championed hydroxychloroquine in television interviews a day after the president publicly put his faith in the medication to lessen the toll of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/John Locher)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah researchers announced Wednesday they are joining a global push to determine if an anti-malaria drug not officially approved for fighting the new coronavirus is useful in fighting the pandemic.

A bottle of hydroxychloroquine is displayed on a table outside The Resort at Texas City nursing home Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Texas City, Texas. Dr. Robin Armstrong, the home’s medical director, is treating nearly 30 residents of the nursing home with the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which is unproven against COVID-19 even as President Donald Trump heavily promotes it as a possible treatment. Armstrong said Trump’s championing of the drug is giving doctors more access to try it on coronavirus patients. More than 80 residents and workers have tested positive for the coronavirus at the facility. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Clinical studies announced by the University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare are among dozens underway around the world as doctors and scientists aim to fast-track testing to assess the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine on the virus.

President Donald Trump has been touting the drug even even though scientists say more testing is needed before it’s proven safe and effective.

Researchers from the two separate health care systems will team up to test a total of at least 20 patients a day in the coming months to help contribute to scientific research about the drug, they said at a news conference Wednesday. The goal is to test 2,300 patients who have tested positive or show symptoms.

They will also assess if a drug called azithromycin, an antibiotic typically used to fight pneumonia, is useful.

Some early results could be ready in about three months, said Dr. Rachel Hess, co-director for the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Utah.

The studies will contribute valuable research while offering patients access to the drugs, the doctors said.

Dr. Samuel Brown, a critical care researcher at Intermountain Healthcare, cautioned that the likelihood is that hydroxychloroquine does not have an effect on coronavirus patients as he warned against over-confidence.

We hope it might have a moderate effect,” Brown said. “If you start taking hydroxychloroquine under the supposition that it’s a miracle drug that will protect you, are you going to start cutting the corners on physical distancing?”

Hydroxychloroquine is officially approved for treating malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, not COVID-19. Small, preliminary studies have suggested it might help prevent the new coronavirus from entering cells and possibly help patients clear the virus sooner. But those have shown mixed results.

The Food and Drug Administration has allowed the medication into the national stockpile as an option for doctors to consider for patients who cannot get into one of the studies.

But the drug has major potential side effects, especially for the heart.

“We know there are downsides to this medication,” said Dr. Adam M. Spivak, an infectious disease physician at University of Utah Health. “What we don’t’ know is whether it has any benefit? That’s absolutely why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

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