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Australians are buying hydroxychloroquine after Trump called it a 'very powerful' treatment for COVID-19 – a claim which remains unproven

Jack Derwin

In an alarming turn of events, Australians are ignoring health warnings and buying up hydroxychloroquine, a chemical used to treat malaria, rheumatic arthritis and some autoimmune diseases, under the belief it may be an effective treatment for COVID-19.

Just last week, US President Trump touted it as a "very powerful" treatment of the coronavirus, describing it as “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine”, and falsely claimed it was approved by US regulator the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that express purpose. One American man, reportedly confident in the President's claims, died shortly after consuming an aquarium cleaner containing the chemical.

Now Australians worryingly appear to be taking the President's advice, with local prescriptions for the drug tripling last week, according to data supplied to Business Insider Australia by MedAdvisor, the platform which processes orders at large pharmacy chains like TerryWhite Chemists, Bloms and Amcal.

"Over the last six months prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine has been trending at a fairly consistent level, and then all of a sudden over the last week we've seen this massive spike," CEO Robert Read told Business Insider Australia.

"The Government is concerned, as are we, that a lot of people are using it now on the suggestion that it may have a role to play [against COVID-19] before it's been properly tested."

In total, more than 11,000 Australians were prescribed the medication by some 6,600 GPs and specialist doctors in a single week. The huge rise in demand is despite the fact that there is little evidence at this point it can successfully treat COVID-19.

"I've learned that a huge proportion of those scripts are being used off-label, which means being used for purposes other than that for which the medication was originally approved," Read said.

"People playing around with medicine they have at home or that they've heard about is dangerous and a slippery slope, I'd suggest."

Certainly, with a firm travel ban in place, few Australians have any need for malaria medication right now. It begs the question: why are some Australian doctors then knowingly prescribing it to be misused?

"Doctors are people, you know, and they have their own concerns and their own challenges and a small proportion of them might be saying, 'well, maybe there is something in this' and then are potentially prescribing it inappropriately," Read said.

"People are in a panic situation and, and looking for anything to help manage through that so you never know what shortcuts they'll take."

While you would hope no Australian medical practitioners were taking cues from a real estate mogul turned commander-in-chief, the medication is indeed being trialled in Australia. The results, however, are not in – while a small trial in China showed no evidence it helped treat COVID-19 at all.

At any rate, self-medicating is fraught with danger, especially at a time when hospitals are already facing unprecedented strain. Indeed, the sudden surge of Australians taking the medication off-label has worried Australia's own regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which issued a warning this week against using it against the coronavirus.

"Given the limited evidence for effect against COVID-19, as well as the risk of significant adverse effects, the TGA strongly discourages the use of hydroxychloroquine outside of its current indications at this time other than in a clinical trial setting or in a controlled environment in the treatment of severely ill patients in hospital," it wrote in a statement, further restricting doctors' ability to prescribe it.

Read echoed the same warning.

"As with all potential treatments for COVID-19, there's going to be clinical trials to actually work out what the effects are because there are lots of individual impacts in the way medicines handled in the body," Read said. "Our position is that people should be doing only what's approved and that's the safest way to be."