As speculation mounted in recent weeks that a pair of old malaria drugs could combat Covid-19, hospitals across the U.S. quickly placed orders, but often could not receive as many tablets as hoped. And the trend intensified after President Trump touted the medicines, according to new data.
About 40,000 tablets of hydroxycholoroquine were ordered on Jan. 31, and about 95% of orders were filled. By March 16, more than 550,000 tablets had been ordered and the fill rate fell to 60%. By last Friday, after Trump talked up the drug during a media briefing, 1.5 million tablets had been ordered, but just 12% of the orders were filled. Orders have jumped 2,196% since the pandemic was declared.
The trend for a very similar medicine, choloroquine, differed slightly because there is only one manufacturer, which was briefly unable to supply the tablet. In late January, just 200 tablets were ordered and only 25% of the orders were filled. By mid-March, shipments resumed, but on March 20, only 1.4% of 30,000 tablets ordered were filled. Overall, orders rose 6,842% since the pandemic began.
The data come from Vizient, a group purchasing organization that negotiates contracts for medicines on behalf of about 3,000 hospitals and health care facilities in the U.S. A spokesperson told us that about 2,230 of its members attempted to place orders between January and March of this year.
Of course, several stories have appeared in recent days about the clamoring for these drugs, but the data helps illustrate the extent to which demand spiked and prompted subsequent shortages.
As noted previously, demand suddenly grew thanks to several medical papers that indicated the drugs may show promise as a weapon to fight Covid-19. Although definitive evidence was lacking, the panic over the pandemic prompted a blizzard of prescription writing. That jeopardized patient health, since hydroxycholoroquine is also approved for treating lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
By mid-March, both drugs were in short supply, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, although the manufacturer of choloroquine has resumed shipments. Over the past few days, state pharmacy boards in Texas, Ohio, Idaho and Nevada began restricting who can be prescribed the drugs, after reports that some doctors prescribing the drugs for themselves and their families.
“Given the limited supply of these medications, and the increasing number of COVID-19 patients being hospitalized for severe illness, as well as those who have been using these products for existing diseases, it is essential that immediate steps be taken to adjust the flow of supply to minimize the potential for even greater negative outcomes,” said Vizier group senior vice president Dan Kistner in a statement.
Shortages, however, are likely to abate since several drug makers in recent days have agreed to ramp up production. In some cases, companies such as Bayer (BAYRY) and Teva Pharmaceuticals (TEVA) have agreed to donate millions of tablets.
There is still no definitive evidence that either drug works – or would be effective when used in combination with azithromycin – since full-blown clinical trials have not been conducted for Covid-19. That said, usage is expected to continue given the lack of treatments and the climbing death toll. As of now, there were 42,164 confirmed cases in the U.S., and 471 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.