University of Utah experts advise caution over drugs hyped as possible coronavirus treatments

(Rick Egan | Tribune file) 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.

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University of Utah experts are expressing concern about the hype surrounding two medications that President Donald Trump and state officials have held up as potential treatments for the coronavirus.

There have been no clinical trials demonstrating that the drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, are effective in combating the disease, notes David Jonah Grunwald, a professor of human genetics at the U. And he argued it’s potentially dangerous to spread information that COVID-19 patients who take the drugs are virtually coming back from the dead like the biblical Lazarus — a comparison made by a physician during a news conference with state officials Friday.

Andy Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious disease at the U., is also urging caution, noting that the nation’s top infectious disease expert has “warned that there is no convincing evidence yet that these drugs work, only stories.”

The drugs have been used for years for arthritis, psoriasis and malaria, and are available in Utah pharmacies through prescription by doctors. But Grunwald said casting the unproven medications as a potential treatment for coronavirus could incite panic buying and limit the availability of the drugs for sick patients who depend on them.

The geneticist said he’s not asserting that the drugs are necessarily ineffective — just that they are wholly unproved.

“I am simply saying defying the principles of reviewed science has dangerous consequences, especially seen in a community that is fearful and in an environment that is susceptible to panicked behavior,” said Grunwald, who is a scientist, but not a medical doctor.

The drugs have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for COVID-19 — although Utah officials said Friday that doctors still may prescribe them for COVID-19 patients here and say evidence shows they should.

On the other hand, Pavia said medical experts don’t yet have good data about whether the drugs are effective against the virus.

“We need to be very cautious until we have better information. In fact, chloroquine worked in the test tube against other viruses but proved to be potentially harmful when properly studied,” he said. "We hope it works, but hope is not the best way to choose safe and effective treatment.”

On Friday, physician Anthony Fauci, 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. He said signs of their promise were purely anecdotal.

“The information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal,” 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 said the federal government has ordered millions of doses. He also said the nation has nothing to lose by trying it.

On Saturday, the president continued to promote the unproven drugs as potential “game changers." And Fox News personality Laura Ingraham has said she’d be willing to volunteer for a study of the drugs’ effectiveness.

During Friday’s news conference, Utah officials and medical representatives were essentially saying the same things as the president.

“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.

Based on his U. profile, Hegmann does not appear to expertise in infectious diseases.

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.

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,” the Layton Republican said. “We believe there’s hope in America.”

Utah’s state epidemiologist, Angela Dunn, said last week that a “lot of scientists internationally” and in the U.S. are studying medications that could help treat COVID-19. Most have involved extremely small patient groups, she noted.

“Current studies about the malaria drugs specifically have been very small sample sizes — one in particular was only 40 people — so it’s difficult to extrapolate that to large population," she said. “So the next step is to do studies with bigger populations to see if it’s effective.”