Hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19 – we don't know if it is safe or if it works

Despite news reports from around the world touting it as a wonder drug, Australians are being reminded that the use of the medicine hydroxychloroquine for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 is experimental, and should only be used by people with COVID-19 in a clinical trial setting or for severely ill patients in hospital.

Hydroxychloroquine is a medicine that has been used for years to treat malaria and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. It has recently come into the spotlight as a potential medicine for COVID-19.

As a result of people trying to obtain this medicine for off-label use, supply restrictions have been put in place to minimise the risk of harm and also to ensure continued supply for people who need it to manage their chronic health conditions not related to COVID-19.

“Further studies are needed to assess whether hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting, and there is only very limited evidence of effectiveness in hospitals,” says Nerida Packham – pharmacist and Medicines Line manager at NPS MedicineWise.

“Researchers around the world are investigating if hydroxychloroquine, as well as a host of other medicines, may help in our fight against COVID-19.

“These studies will tell us if hydroxychloroquine works, whether it is safe for this use, and what dosage is appropriate. Quite simply, we don’t yet know whether it is effective and how to use it for COVID-19,” says Ms Packham.

If used incorrectly, hydroxychloroquine can be toxic to the heart (leading to a heart attack or heart failure), to the eyes (leading to irreversible damage), and to blood sugar levels (leading to severely low blood sugar).

“It is particularly important to be medicinewise during the COVID-19 pandemic. This means following the latest medical advice, based on the latest evidence from trusted sources,” says Ms Packham.

The use of hydroxychloroquine is well understood when treating malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. It helps people with these diseases, and we know how to manage the risks.

“For anyone who needs to continue taking hydroxychloroquine to treat chronic conditions, speak to your doctor for advice. The government is working with pharmacists to ensure you can still access hydroxychloroquine,” says Ms Packham.

NPS MedicineWise has more information about finding reliable information about medicines.

For more information on medicines and COVID-19, go to nps.org.au/coronavirus

If you have questions about your medicines you can call Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) for the cost of a local call (calls from mobiles may cost more). Hours of operation are Monday–Friday 9 am–5 pm AET (excluding public holidays). 

 

Media contact

Matthew Harris, NPS MedicineWise Communications & PR adviser: (02) 8217 9229, 0419 618 365 or [email protected]

Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS MedicineWise enables better decisions about medicines, medical tests and other health technologies. We receive funding from the Australian Government Department of Health.