Two major federal agencies are stocking up on hydroxychloroquine, a longtime anti-malarial medication touted by President Donald Trump as a potential “game changer” in the coronavirus pandemic, amid experts’ warnings that its use for COVID-19 is risky and unproven.
Federal contracting records show the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons have placed emergency orders for more than $250,000 worth of hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets from private suppliers over the last two weeks, with both agencies apparently planning to use the drug to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Enormous controversy has swirled around the drug, typically used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Amid reports of shortages in the U.S., Trump threatened “retaliation” against India, a major world supplier, if the nation did not lift its ban on exports of hydroxychloroquine to the U.S.
The Food and Drug Administration recently authorized the drug’s experimental use for COVID-19 in response to anecdotal reports of its effectiveness — while warning in one notice that “we do not know if it works for COVID-19.” FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn warned last month that “it might do more harm than good.”
In some instances, the drug has led to eye and heart damage, and when asked if the drug was known to be effective at treating COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “The answer is no.” But Fauci added that “it might be effective” and officials needed to collect data “that will ultimately show that it is truly effective and safe under the conditions of COVID-19.”
The VA and the Bureau of Prisons have moved ahead with boosting their stockpiles nonetheless, though the prison system said the drug would only be issued to infected prisoners as the continuation of a treatment first prescribed by a hospital.
“We are not using routinely using Hydroxychloroquine,” a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times. “It would be used if an inmate is discharged from the hospital having already started treatment with Hydroxycloroquine while there. We would follow any discharge instructions to continue treatment with Hydroxycloroquine.”
The prison system signed a no-bid $60,000 contract for 200mg hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets on March 31 with Premium Rx National, a Durwood, Md., supplier, citing the national emergency to set aside usual competitive-bidding rules.
Less is known about the VA’s plans for the drug. The VA, the nation’s largest health care system, signed a $40,000 no-bid contract on March 26 to secure 200mg hydroxychloroquine suflate tablets from Texas-based McKesson Corp., citing the “COVID-19 EMERGENCY,” according to contracting records.
The VA followed that order with a similar $168,000 no-bid contract on April 1 with Golden State Medical Supply, a Camarillo, Calif.-based company.
Records showed both orders were placed on behalf of the VA’s mail-order pharmacy system, which handles tens of millions of prescriptions for the nation’s veterans.
The VA did not respond to requests for comment. As of Tuesday morning, the agency does not appear to have information on its website regarding hydroxychloroquine’s possible use for COVID-19.
The existence of the Bureau of Prisons contract was first reported by the Daily Beast and the existence of one of the VA contracts was first reported by BuzzFeed News.
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