Deploy drug now against coronavirus

By CHARLIE SMITH,

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Last week I wrote about finding comfort from coronavirus worries through family and faith (as well as golf and a bag of Doritos). This week I’ve found another place where the light of hope is shining through the cracks: science and medicine.

A longstanding malaria drug, which has proven to have mild side effects over many decades of use, holds great promise for stopping this new threat that our bodies don’t have any immunity against.

Two Kansas physicians who are actively treating coronavirus patients, Drs. Jeff Colyer and Daniel Hinthorn, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Monday describing the benefits they’ve seen of hydroxychloroquine. The drug with the brand name Plaquenil is used to treat malaria, lupus and arthritis. The Kansas doctors described it as “relatively safe” with the main side effect being stomach irritation.

They cited a 2005 Centers for Disease Control study that showed it can block a virus from penetrating a cell if given before someone is exposed. If given after the virus has already entered the body, it inhibited the virus.

Chinese researchers published results on March 9 showing the drug to be effective against COVID-19 in a test tube, and since then a French study has shown it has worked in real life. The French doctors gave the drug in combination with a Z-Pak, common for treating upper respiratory infections, and reported that 100% of the small number of patients they treated that way were cured after six days, compared with 57.1% treated just with hydroxychloroquine and 12.5% who received neither.

American doctors are using it with success as well. A Florida man, Rio Giardinieri, 52, credited it with saving his life in an interview with a Fox TV station. After more than a week battling the coronavirus and pneumonia in the ICU of a South Florida hospital, he said doctors told him there was nothing more they could do. Barely able to speak, he said goodbyes to his wife and three children.

Then a friend sent him an article about hydroxychloroquine and he contacted an infectious disease doctor about using it. Although the doctor stressed to him that the drug was unproven, Giardinieri said he didn’t think he would survive until the next morning and had nothing to lose.

An hour after taking the pills he described his heart as beating out of his chest, which may have been his body fighting the virus, and had another episode two hours later where he could barely breathe. But then he woke up the next morning and said he was perfectly fine, just like he had felt before contracting the coronavirus.

The Kansas physicians point to several other potential uses: It can be used to treat family members of coronavirus patients, and the doctors say it may be especially useful in mild cases and young patients, thus slowing spread of the virus and “flattening the curve.” Furthermore, the doctors say it could be given to exposed health care workers for five days rather than quarantining them for 14 days, followed by a test, allowing them to return to work sooner if they test negative.

President Trump has backed expanded use of hydroxychloroquine, although public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci have said it needs a clinical trial. A story in the online health news website STAT pointed out that “three-quarters of the time, medicines against infectious disease that looked promising in small studies either were ineffective or had side effects that made them unusable.”

But the pandemic would probably be over, with thousands dead, by the time a trial finishes.

In this case the drug is proven to be generally safe and to work in a small sample size. For patients at death’s door from coronavirus, they have nothing to lose. And a quick response using the drug in other applications seems well worth the risk and could help turn the tide in the battle that all of us as Americans have found ourselves in the middle of.

Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him via email at csmith@columbianprogress.com or call (601) 736-2611.

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