As many as 4,000 seriously ill coronavirus patients in New York are being treated with the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, state health officials say.
President Trump has touted hydroxychloroquine as a potential life-saver, although there is no widespread scientific evidence to date showing it helps battle COVID-19.
But Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month said healthcare providers in the state would be using the drug in combination with the antibiotic Zithromax, or azithromycin, for some last-ditch cases, based on potentially promising research.
“Time is of the essence,’’ said Albany University Public Health Dean David Holtgrave, who is on the state’s research team, in a statement.
A state Health Department official said the DOH has shipped doses of hydroxychloroquine to 56 hospitals across New York, distributing enough “to treat 4,000 patients to date.”
Patients have received doses as part of four- or 10-day regimens, officials said.
The University of Albany’s School of Public Health is observing the drug’s impact on the patients, and its preliminary study could come back in weeks instead of the usual months, officials said.
There are also clinical trials being conducted to see whether the drug can help block transmission.
NYU Langone Medical School is conducting a random trial with a $9.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Currently, there is no proven way to prevent COVID-19 after being exposed,” said Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor with the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone and the study’s co-principal investigator.
“If hydroxychloroquine provides protection, then it could be an essential tool for fighting this pandemic. If it doesn’t, then people should avoid unnecessary risks from taking the drug.”
The RX has long been used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Its potential side effects include everything from fatal heart arrhythmia to vision loss, ear-ringing, vomiting, mood changes, skin rashes and hair loss.
Health officials are treading cautiously, saying they don’t anticipate hydroxychloroquine will be a “miracle drug” against the coronavirus — but the studies are worth the gamble.
In terms of the NYU clinical trial regarding prevention, researchers are enrolling 2,000 adult volunteers at six sites.
They are recruiting people who lack any COVID-19 symptoms but have been in close contact with others who have a confirmed or pending diagnosis.
On a random basis, the trial participants will receive either hydroxychloroquine or a placebo pill — vitamin C — every day for two weeks.
Each day during the 14-day period and then again on Day 28, the participants will swab their nasal passages and send the samples to researchers to detect potential COVID-19 infection.
“If everything goes as planned, the eight-week trial could provide answers by summer on whether a preventive dose of the drug is safe and effective,’’ NYU Langone said in a release.
“If so, the strategy could give health officials a much needed boost in slowing person-to-person transmission.”
The federal Food and Drug Administration granted emergency-use authorization to use hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients amid the pandemic.
There has been anecdotal evidence — including from China — that the drug help patients clear the virus sooner.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, asked recently whether the drug was considered a treatment for the novel coronavirus, said, “The answer is no … The evidence that you’re talking about … is anecdotal evidence.”
Meanwhile, Northwell Health facilities — including Lenox Hill, Long Island Jewish and Staten Island University hospitals — and Maimonides Medical Center are giving moderately to seriously ill coronavirus patients certain antiviral drugs such as Sarilumab, an IL-6 inhibitor, and Remdesivir, a drug that incorporates itself into the genome.
Northwell has recruited 143 patients for a Sarilumab trial.
Mount Sinai’s-Icahn School of Medicine also is one of 34 institutions nationwide participating in the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. The program seeks blood-plasma donations from recovered coronavirus patients that contain antibodies that can be used to fight the virus in seriously ill patients.