By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Prescriptions for the antimalarial drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine surged dramatically over the last few months, likely due to their off-label use for treating COVID-19, according to a new analysis published in JAMA. The study also found a significant decline in prescriptions for the opioid painkiller Vicodin and other hydrocodone/acetaminophen combinations.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital studied prescription drug data from over 58,000 chain, independent and mail-order pharmacies in the U.S. from February 16 to April 25, and compared them to prescriptions over the same period in 2019.
Prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine spiked in mid-March – rising over 2,000 percent in one week — soon after President Trump began touting the drugs as a possible treatment for the coronavirus. Brigham researchers estimate there were close to half a million additional prescriptions filled for hydroxychloroquine/chloroquine in 2020 compared to the year before.
Hydroxychloroquine is only approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Increased demand for the drug and government stockpiling soon led to spot shortages of hydroxychloroquine.
“There have been indications that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) prescribing had increased and shortages had been reported, but this study puts a spotlight on the extent to which excess hydroxychloroquine/chloroquine prescriptions were filled nationally,” said corresponding author Haider Warraich, MD, an associate physician in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Brigham.
“This analysis doesn’t include patients who were prescribed HCQ in a hospital setting — this means that patients could have been taking the drugs at home, without supervision or monitoring for side effects.”
Last month President Trump took hydroxychloroquine for about two weeks with a doctor’s permission, even though the FDA warned that hydroxychloroquine should not be used as a treatment for COVID-19 outside of a hospital or clinical study because it could aggravate heart problems. The drug has been linked to at least 48 deaths in the U.S. so far this year, according to an FDA database.
On Sunday, the White House announced the U.S. supplied Brazil with 2 million doses of hydroxychloroquine. Brazil reported a record 33,274 new cases of the coronavirus over the weekend. Its death toll now ranks only below the United States, Britain and Italy.
Other Drugs Impacted by Pandemic
Brigham researchers say prescriptions for hydrocodone/acetaminophen fell by nearly 22 percent over the study period. There were also notable declines in prescriptions for the antibiotics amoxicillin and azithromycin, the blood pressure drug lisinopril, and the nerve drug gabapentin. Researchers said there are a variety of reasons why the drugs are being prescribed less often.
“The modest decline for most common long-term therapies after peak could represent reduced contact with prescribing clinicians, restricted access to pharmacies, pharmacist rationing, loss of insurance from unemployment, or replete supplies from early stockpiling,” researchers said. “Steep declines for amoxicillin and azithromycin appeared out of proportion to expected seasonal declines and could represent fewer outpatient prescriptions for upper respiratory tract infection symptoms.”
The pandemic appears to be taking a toll on the nation’s mental health. In the early stages of the outbreak, pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts reported a surge in prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Valium, as well as antidepressants and anti-insomnia drugs.
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of Americans said that they or a family member had cancelled or postponed medical care because of the pandemic. About one in every ten said the person’s medical condition worsened as a result of the delayed care.