Physicians Seek to Reassure Amid Hydroxychloroquine Shortage

Jeff Evans

March 27, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

Physicians and pharmacists are reporting shortages of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine following President Trump's promotion of the medications as potential COVID-19 treatments, leaving patients with rheumatic diseases wondering how it will impact their access.

The American Medical Association, the American Pharmacists Association, and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, issued a joint statement that strongly opposed prophylactic prescribing of these medications for COVID-19 or stockpiling them in anticipation of use for COVID-19. The concerns over shortages have also prompted the American College of Rheumatology, American Academy of Dermatology, Arthritis Foundation, and Lupus Foundation of America to send a joint statement to the Trump administration and the nation's governors highlighting critical hydroxychloroquine access issues and asking policymakers to work together with health care providers and patient communities to ensure continued availability of these drugs.

Now rheumatologists are trying to reassure patients with lupus or other rheumatic diseases who take the antimalarials that they will be available and are relatively easy for manufacturers to produce.

In a Q and A interview, NYU Langone Health rheumatology division director and Lupus Center director Jill P. Buyon, MD, and associate professor of rheumatology, Peter M. Izmirly, MD, noted that, while shortages have been reported across the United States because of large increases in off-label prescribing, many of the drugs' manufacturers have committed to donating millions of doses and/or stepping up production to meet demand.

Later in this article, Michael H. Pillinger, MD, a rheumatologist and professor of medicine, biochemistry, and molecular pharmacology at NYU Langone Health, New York, answered questions about a new multicenter study called COLCORONA getting underway to test the anti-inflammatory drug colchicine. The answers in this Q&A have been edited for length and clarity.

Questions About Hydroxychloroquine Shortage

Q: What is the current situation with hydroxychloroquine in your practice?

A: We have been getting calls from our patients asking about getting refills for hydroxychloroquine. Our group has been calling local pharmacies asking about the availability of hydroxychloroquine, and we are compiling a list of pharmacies in New York with current availabilities to share with patients.

We are somewhat limited by our electronic health record system, Epic, which can only send a prescription to one pharmacy, so that has placed some limitations on knowing where it is available. Some pharmacies have not had hydroxychloroquine available, while others have. We have also been encouraging patients to check online and look for mail-order possibilities for 90-day supplies.

Nearly all prescriptions are for generic hydroxychloroquine. Branded hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) is much more expensive, and we can run into obstacles with getting it approved by insurers, too.

Q: What are you telling patients who seek to refill their prescription or call with concerns? Is it feasible for patients to stop hydroxychloroquine or cut their dosage if necessary?

A: If someone's been on hydroxychloroquine and has benefited from its use there's no reason to come off it at this time, and given the possibility that it may have an effect on COVID-19, that is all the better. But we want to reassure patients that they can get the drug and that it is not difficult to manufacture.

Given the significantly higher risk of disease flare that was first described in lupus patients who discontinued hydroxychloroquine in the Canadian Hydroxychloroquine Study Group's 1991 randomized, controlled trial, it is not advisable for patients to stop the drug.

Some patients do split their dosage day-to-day if they are taking less than 400 mg daily, such that someone taking 300 mg daily may take two 200-mg tablets one day and just one 200-mg tablet the next day, and so on. To avoid eye toxicity that can occur after years of taking the drug, hydroxychloroquine is generally prescribed based on weight at 5 mg/kg.

The drug also stays in the body for quite a while [often up to 3 months and even longer], so that is helpful for patients to know.

Given the current situation and the possibility of its effectiveness against COVID-19, it is ironic that we are actually trying to recruit older lupus patients who have had long-term stable disease while on hydroxychloroquine to a trial of stopping the drug to reduce the risk of developing the side effect of retinopathy. We want to see if patients can safely withdraw hydroxychloroquine without flaring, so we hope to not run into enrollment difficulties based on the current situation with COVID-19.

Q: How do you view the balance between having enough hydroxychloroquine for patients with lupus or other rheumatic diseases and its use in COVID-19 patients?

A: We want to reassure patients that hydroxychloroquine will be available, and there is no reason to hoard the drug or to worry excessively about being unable to obtain it. Efforts to increase production by MylanTeva, Sanofi, Novartis, and other manufacturers of hydroxychloroquine should really help out.

Q: Are there pharmacy restrictions on prescription amounts?

A: This is not universal at this time, but some institutions are cutting back and offering only 1-month supplies.

Colchicine COVID-19 Trial Underway

Dr. Pillinger, of NYU Langone Health, explored the COLCORONA study of colchicine as a treatment for people infected with COVID-19 and the worry that shortage concerns may arise for it, too.

Q: What is the general availability of colchicine and its susceptibility to shortage?

A: There are two major manufacturers of colchicine in the United States, Takeda and Hikma, who together manufacture the majority of the drug.

The greatest use of colchicine in the United States is for gout, which affects approximately 4 million Americans, but the drug is not used chronically, so a much smaller number of patients are using colchicine at any one time. Colchicine is also used for other inflammatory conditions, primarily calcium pyrophosphate crystal disease and familial Mediterranean fever (FMF is rare in the United States). Cardiologists also regularly prescribe colchicine in pericarditis for short-term use. Physicians may use it off label for other purposes, too.

Overall, the number of patients using colchicine is much larger than that for the use of hydroxychloroquine, for example, suggesting that the immediate risk of shortage could be lower. However, if individuals started using it off label, or prescribing inappropriately for the COVID-19 indication, the supply would rapidly run short.

Q: What other points are there to consider regarding the use of colchicine to treat COVID-19?

A: There is no evidence — zero — that colchicine has any benefit for COVID-19, not even case reports. There is some rationale that it might be beneficial, but that is exactly why the COLCORONA trial would be logical to try.

The COLCORONA trial is exactly the kind of trial that would be needed for assessing colchicine, and it is big enough and happening quickly enough to get an answer. But if people start to use colchicine off label, we may never know the truth.

While colchicine can be used safely in most people, it can be very problematic and requires an experienced doctor's supervision. Overdoses can be fatal, and colchicine interacts with many drugs, all of which require dose adjustment and some of which must be stopped in order to use colchicine — it isn't candy. Some of the other drugs being looked at for COVID-19 in fact may interact with colchicine.

Colchicine must also be dose adjusted for kidney disease, and, in some of the COVID-19 patients, kidney function changes rapidly. So again, its use would require expert supervision even if there were evidence for its utility.

The side effects of colchicine, if mis-dosed, can be very unpleasant, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Even at the apparent right dose, some people will get these side effects, so colchicine has to be something that works to make the risk/benefit ratio worth it.

Some preparations of colchicine are made combined with probenecid, a gout drug. This is even more problematic because probenecid can raise the level of drugs excreted by the kidney and could affect other treatments.

So in sum, what may be a good idea in theory can turn out to be a disastrous idea in practice, and here we have nothing but theory. This is not an agent to use randomly; the studies will be rushed out quickly and hopefully will give us the knowledge to know what to do.

This article was reformatted on 3/31/2020 for clarity.

Dr. Izmirly and Dr. Buyon said they have research grants with the National Institutes of Health to study hydroxychloroquine in patients with lupus and in anti–SSA/Ro-positive pregnant women with a previous child with congenital heart block. Dr. Pillinger reports that he has an investigator-initiated grant from Hikma to study colchicine in osteoarthritis.

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