TAMPA, Fla. — For more than a decade, Sara Esidore has lived with the autoimmune disease, lupus. There’s no cure, the disease causes a person's immune system to attack healthy tissue, organs and joints.
One of the main drugs she and other patients use to manage the disease is called hydroxychloroquine. Esidore calls the drug the foundation of her treatment plan.
“There was only a two-year span when I was not on hydroxychloroquine,” said Esidore. “In that two-year span, I had kidney failure, I had permanent nerve damage and I had to go on chemotherapy for a year.”
Hydroxychloroquine is also used to treat malaria and rheumatoid arthritis.
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization for hydroxychloroquine sulfate and chloroquine phosphate to be used to treat certain hospitalized patients with COVID-19.
Esidore anticipated a shortage problem and called her doctor for a 90-day refill.
“I only have three weeks left, and I’m very worried that I’m not going to be able to get my refills because, right now, no one can find this pill in Florida,” said Esidore. “I have friends who’ve called 17 pharmacies, and they can’t find any.”
The FDA lists shipping delays and demand increase as reasons for the current hydroxychloroquine shortage.
Right now, the agency says there are no FDA-approved drugs to treat COVID-19. It says more data is necessary to determine if the hydroxychloroquine is safe and effective in treating or preventing the disease.
Dr. Gregory Burns is the academic director and an associate professor at the University of Tampa's Department of Physician Assistant Medicine. He says hydroxychloroquine has been around since the 1950s.
“Especially for those who have lupus, they’re on it chronically, or with indefinite treatments of this particular drug,” said Burns. “It’s actually one of the few drugs that shows a nice progression to prevent organ damage.”
Burns says while some studies may show promise, there have not been enough clinical studies to determine its effectiveness for COVID-19. He says it’s hard to say how long a drug shortage could last.
“Just a better awareness of prescribing when appropriate as well as making sure that the companies that are making this product or drug are stepping up their efforts to make more pills,” said Burns.
The FDA says manufacturers are ramping up production. The agency also says its working with those manufacturers to make sure that can happen expeditiously and safely.
Still, Esidore, who is also an ambassador and advocate with the Lupus Foundation of America, thinks there is hope on the horizon.
“I can probably speak for many of us when I say if there was someone who was dying of COVID-19 and they thought this could help, of course we would give up our drug for that person,” said Esidore. “But the situation is, if we’re taking it all away from one sick community and giving it to another sick community, we’re kind of just trading one life for another.”