TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It was a promising COVID-19 treatment last year that is now sitting in stockpiles across the country. Hydroxychloroquine did not turn out to be the miracle drug once touted by the former president and sought out by Florida's governor.
Instead, it has become a commodity for which the state has little use.
Last April, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he had secured a million doses of hydroxychloroquine from Israel at no cost to the state.
The Republican and close ally of, at that time, President Donald Trump hosted a roundtable with doctors who supported the use of the drug. The discussion came despite very little and often anecdotal evidence that hydroxychloroquine was beneficial in the fight against COVID-19.
"I've reached out to physicians and just asked, 'Hey, what’s the deal with this? Should we get more of it?'" DeSantis told journalists at the meeting. "We want to, obviously, give patients the opportunity to have a recovery."
The promotion by governors like DeSantis and the former president quickly created a run on the treatment, frustrating Florida rheumatologists.
"It was a real problem," said Dr. Norman Gaylis, a Florida physician with the American College of Rheumatology. "We don't have enough time in the day to answer how much it frustrates me with the way this has been handled."
Gaylis said April and May were difficult times for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients who need the pills to fight disability and pain. Those he treats were unable to fill prescriptions, forced to ration what they had and find sources from outside the country.
Meanwhile, states had little use for their stockpiles as research piled up suggested the drug did little to treat COVID-19 and raised safety questions.
"My guess is the majority hydroxychloroquine sitting in states' storage facilities are basically going to end up being thrown away," Gaylis said.
Some states indeed continue to sit on large supplies of the medicine, which has a two-year shelf life. Oregon has yet to use any of its 50,000 tablets. Texas has about 92% of its million doses remaining. Both are working to find a use. Oklahoma officials are trying to return about $2 million of the pills to their supplier.
In Florida, about 980,000 doses were on hand as of June. Officials haven't been able to provide an updated total but said they're working to distribute them.
State emergency management has partnered with the Lupus Foundation of America. Together they're donating supplies to doctors, avoiding a prolonged dose shortage here.
Dr. Michael Bubb, a principal investigator in the Lupus Clinical Investigators Network of Lupus Therapeutics, said Florida's market has stabilized after the summer panic.
"I haven't had a patient express concerns in recent months about the availability of the drug," Bubb said.
Going forward, however, the University of Florida rheumatologist hopes the state will better consult experts before putting any future strain on the market.
"It's ideal to have the physician experts consulted on these issues," Bubb said. "The real issue is that medical knowledge is not easy. Looking at data, particularly observational data, rather than randomized controlled data, really needs to have a nuanced eye."
The Food and Drug Administration still approves the use of hydroxychloroquine for lupus, malaria and rheumatoid arthritis. The agency pulled the drug's emergency use authorization for COVID-19 last June due to a risk of heart problems. It continues to discourage use for virus treatment outside of hospitals.
Like many states, Florida is trying to get rid of its hydroxychloroquine. Here are some things to remember:
- Florida secured about a million doses last year through donation.
- Few were used as research suggested the pills did little to treat COVID
- In June, Florida had about 980,000 pills left
- It’s now working with the Lupus Foundation of America to donate the remaining supply.