Utah officials say two drugs are likely effective treatments for COVID-19

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family physician Dr. Marc C. Babitz, center, says a few words as elected officials, from left, Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, Dr. Kurt Hegmann, director of Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah, Dan Richards, CEO, pharmacist of Meds In Motion Pharmacy, and Sen. Karen Mayne, keep their distance from each other as they talk about how they are teaming up to fight the coronavirus, in a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, Friday, March 20, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.

UPDATE: University of Utah experts have taken issue with the way others are promoting these drugs, believing it is irresponsible. Read more here.

Utah officials are strongly advocating the use of two medications — which President Donald Trump also is hailing — as treatments for COVID-19 patients here, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved them for that purpose.

“There are responses that are equivalent to Lazarus — literally the biblical Lazarus — people almost dead coming back,” said physician Kurt Hegmann, director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah, about hydroxychloroquine. The other drug giving hope is chloroquine.

“They are stunning medications. I have no doubt they will be a very effective protocol,” he said after seeing reports about their use in China, Italy, France and South Korea.

The drugs have been used for years for arthritis, psoriasis and malaria, and are available in Utah pharmacies through prescription by doctors. While approved for other illnesses, they have not been approved by the FDA for COVID-19 — although Utah officials say doctors still may prescribe them for COVID-19 patients here and say studies show they should.

“The type of evidence for these drugs is not what you would call FDA-type of evidence. But if you want to wait for FDA evidence, we can do what we’re doing for another six months” with treatments that are probably less effective treatments, said Marc E. Babitz, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, who said he was speaking as a family doctor.

Legislative leaders, health department officials, academics, representatives from insurance companies and others held a Capitol press conference to advocate use of the drugs as treatments, but not as a cure, for COVID-19. They said the drugs may shorten and reduce the severity of the illness, possibly allowing more patients to stay at home instead of in hospitals.

But also Friday, the nation’s top infectious disease expert downplayed, during a White House news conference, any role that the medications might have in the fast-moving pandemic, and said signs of their promise were purely anecdotal.

“The information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal,” physician Anthony Fauci told reporters. “It was not done in a controlled clinical trial. So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”

Trump, standing next to Fauci, still called the drugs game changers, and said the federal government has ordered millions of doses. He also said the nation has nothing to lose by trying it.

Utah officials were essentially saying the same things as the president.

Hegmann said his center at the U. has been closely watching reports about the use of the drugs on COVID-19 patients and other tests since January, when some initial tests showed they could be effective.

“What we’ve seen is study after study and report after report of efficacy has come from multiple countries. It has also come from ICUs [intensive care units] in Seattle and on the East Coast, where the problem is worse,” he said.

Babitz said his top concern as a family doctor is the health of his patients, and he said strong evidence shows the two drugs can help. “The risk to the patient from these medicines is very low and the potential benefit to these patients is very high,” he said.

He said the treatment won’t cure everything. “But it’s going to bend the curve, as they say, and make a big difference and get our society back to functioning normally much more rapidly and prevent the onslaught of patients who are very sick into our intensive care units.”

Officials said they are surveying Utah pharmacies to see how much of the drugs they now have on hand, and are working with other states to develop plans for distributing the drugs to areas in need.

They also cautioned doctors and pharmacists to be judicious in how they dispense the drugs for now.

“This is not the time to think of it as toilet paper and run to your doctor to get a prescription,” Babitz said. “We’re asking physicians, please don’t give into the panicky patients who ask you to write this prescription for COVID-19 just because the president was on TV.”

Dan Richards, CEO of Meds in Motion Pharmacy, urged, “Please do not dispense this to people who are looking at it as preventive medicine. We are looking at this as a treatment, not a cure for COVID-19. And we need to be very judicious in how we are using this medicine.”

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams said the news conference about the drugs was called to give worried Utahns some hope. “We need some good news. We think this is good news,” he said. “We believe there’s hope in America.”

During a Thursday press conference, Trump promoted the use of chloroquine — and said it was approved by the FDA. The FDA later said it is approved for other illnesses, but not COVID-19 — but added that U.S. doctors are legally able to prescribe a drug for any illness or condition they think is medically appropriate.

Trump said, "It’s been around for a long time, so we know that if things don’t go as planned it’s not going to kill anybody.”