Canberrans with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus who take an old anti-malaria medication touted as a potential COVID-19 treatment have struggled to fill prescriptions as the federal government works with the pharmaceutical industry to maintain the drug's supply.
Hydroxychloroquine, which is sold as Plaquenil, has become hard to find in local chemists after an unprecedented surge in demand.
Canberran Helen Cody, who has taken the drug for 25 years to alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, said she had to visit three pharmacies before she could fill her regular prescription, a three-month supply of 100 tablets.
"It really has me very worried that I couldn't access this," Ms Cody said.
Ms Cody, who experiences severe pain without the drug, said she had never had trouble having her prescription filled until the president of the United States, Donald Trump, said the drug would be a useful COVID-19 treatment
"I don't believe anything Trump says, but I thought, if he's right on this one, I'm going to be safe. I knew he was just, you know, big noting himself," she said.
While the drug may come to form part of a COVID-19 treatment, its efficacy will first need to be tested in a large clinical trial run by the World Health Organisation. A small trial in Melbourne will also assess the drug's ability to treat coronavirus, after an earlier study showed strong lab-based results.
Lupus Australia president Barbara Ward said there were limited treatment options for lupus patients, and a COVID-19 treatment should not come at the expense of those already reliant on hydroxychloroquine.
The president of the ACT branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Antonio Di Dio, said apparent shortages had been caused by patients having their prescription and subsequent repeats filled at the same time, a practice which has been temporarily stopped.
"There's obviously only so much of it to go around. It's not manufactured in a large number of places. If there was a sudden, big jump in the consumption of it, then so many people would miss out on their regular monthly script for their severe arthritis," Dr Di Dio said.
He said manufacturers were doing well in producing as much as possible, but it there was no "incontrovertible evidence" hydroxychloroquine was effective in treating COVID-19 and it was important for people making public health statements to speak responsibly.
"We need as little as possible in the way of irresponsible, irrational claims and as much as possible of our decision making to be based on either scientific evidence or the best possible intelligent guesses made by the best-qualified people to make those intelligent guesses," Dr Di Dio said.
A spokeswoman for the Therapeutic Goods Administration said the agency was working to shore up the supply of hydroxychloroquine was secured for people who took it regularly.
"Due to the current lack of evidence, use of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19 is discouraged other than in a clinical trial or in hospital for seriously unwell patients," she said.
New rules for issuing hydroxychloroquine prescriptions were introduced in March, while Sanofi-Aventis Australia Pty Ltd has said there is a supply of the drug available but some pharmacies and suppliers had run out of stock, the spokeswoman said.
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