SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah medical association has rescinded a recommendation it made last week on behalf of state health officials for doctors to treat coronavirus patients using malaria drugs that medical professionals across the country have cautioned against using until more testing is done.
The about-face by the Utah Medical Association came after a group of infectious disease doctors pushed back over the weekend against the Friday guidance.
The association said in the first email sent Friday that chloroquine and a similar drug, hydroxychloroquine, had shown “promising data for affecting the course of COVID-19” and that their recommended use was being made at the suggestion of the Utah Department of Health. The association also recommended combining them with zinc.
The association reversed positions in a follow-up email Sunday in which it said the Utah Department of Health had withdrawn the previous guidance after “much collaborative discussion” and based on “a lack of convincing evidence regarding the efficacy and safety of off-label use of hydroxycholorquine.”
Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, declined to answer any questions about what led to the change and instead sent only a statement Monday.
“Things are rapidly changing on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. We are doing all that we can to help share the latest information and recommendations to help providers do their jobs and take care of patients,” McOmber said. “We are working to get information out as quickly as possible to help in this crisis and will continue to update and give information that we receive as soon as practicable to help providers on the front lines.”
Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said the state didn’t intend to recommend use of the drugs, but rather dosage amounts if a medical provider and patient decides to use them. He said the department reached out to the Utah Medical Association after the email to clarify the state’s position.
Utah takes a neutral stance on the drugs, allowing doctors and patients to decide, Hudachko said.
About 50 infectious disease doctors and pharmacists sent a letter out to doctors around the state warning about the potential risks of using the drugs for coronavirus patients. They said two small French studies often cited as proof of success have been “wildly misinterpreted,” the doctors wrote.
“There are no data demonstrating efficacy,” the doctors wrote. “Larger studies with more rigorous methods are needed.”
Utah isn’t the only state grappling with how to deal with drugs that have been touted by President Donald Trump as a possible treatment. He fueled excitement when he tweeted that hydroxychloroquine plus an antibiotic could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine” and should “be put in use immediately.” He cited a French study that gave the combo to six patients.
But the drugs have major side effects, which is one reason scientists don’t want to give them without evidence of their value, even in this emergency. Scientists say major studies are needed to prove the drugs are safe and effective against coronavirus. One such study recently started in New York and another is set to begin in Utah soon.
No drugs have been approved as a treatment, cure, preventive medicine or vaccine for the disease, and public health officials say not to expect anything imminently.
Another concern with using the drugs is a run on them could also prevent access for people who need them for rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed an emergency order last week barring the use of anti-malaria drugs. The Wyoming Board of Medicine warned physicians against hoarding and misusing the drugs touted as potential treatments for the coronavirus.