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Officials: COVID-19 crisis causing shortages of arthritis drug

Calhoun Compounding Pharmacy

Alloson Burgoon holds a bottle of Hydroxychloroquine at Calhoun Compounding Pharmacy in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

The coronavirus crisis may be creating shortages of a drug commonly used to treat lupus and arthritis, according to guidance the Alabama Board of Pharmacy issued to the state's pharmacists Wednesday.

Patients have reported difficulties getting the drug hydroxychloroquine, the board said in a statement posted Wednesday on the Alabama Department of Public Health's website. 

“We have received calls from patients who take the drug regularly to relieve symptoms of arthritis or lupus, and are now unable to refill the medication,” the board's statement read. 

In recent tweets and press conferences, President Donald Trump has touted the drug — most commonly used to fight malaria — as a possible treatment for COVID-19, the virus that is sweeping across the globe in a pandemic. More than 280 Alabamians had the illness as of Wednesday morning, and one death, in Jackson County, has been confirmed.

According to the statement from the Board of Pharmacy, prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine and the related drug chloroquine have increased significantly “since these drugs were mentioned in Presidential press conferences.” Most of the new prescriptions were issued not to actual COVID-19 patients, but rather by doctors offering the drug "in case" a patient develops COVID-19.

“It's like the toilet paper thing,” said Donnie Calhoun, owner of Calhoun Compounding Pharmacy in Anniston. “People are saying, 'I want it in case I need it.”

Calhoun said wholesalers have been more reluctant to let go of the drug since it began being mentioned as a possible COVID-19 treatment. He said he believed that reluctance is linked to wholesalers' belief that they'll be asked to supply a lot of the drug if it does become a primary treatment for COVID-19.

Calhoun is quick to point out that there's still not conclusive evidence that the drug works for coronavirus. That's something the pharmacy board also said in its Wednesday statement. 

The board's statement also noted that hydroxychloroquine has a long half-life in the body — meaning that patients who use the drug regularly might have to wait five months for side effects to wear off. 

Calhoun said the drug can cause nausea, among other problems. He said he has sometimes dispensed the drug to people going on mission trips to countries where malaria is a risk. He said some of those patients have told him they never want to take it again.

"This is a pretty rough drug," he said. 

The board's statement doesn't place any restrictions on pharmacists, but does warn that if the drug causes major problems for patients, there “may not be protection” for pharmacists who fill off-label prescriptions for it. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.