Coronavirus: University of Washington, NYU researchers testing malaria drug for use against COVID-19

SEATTLE — A new study is seeking to determine if a decades-old drug used to treat malaria and lupus might be effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

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Researchers at the University of Washington are leading the potentially groundbreaking work on hydroxychloroquine.

They’ve teamed up with New York University to work on the study. Right now, researchers are looking for participants who’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

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“There is an incredible need for methods of breaking community transmission,” said Dr. Ruanne Barnabas of the University of Washington, a principal investigator on the study. “It’s definitely the most urgent study I’ve ever worked on,” she said.

Hydroxychloroquine is a commonly used to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. A stronger form, chloroquine, is used as an anti-malaria drug.

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Barnabas said there's been a lot of attention paid recently to hydroxychloroquine because tests in labs have shown promising results.

“Within test tubes they were able to test hydroxychloroquine and found it prevents SARS-CoV-2 from entering the cell. It changes the pH and makes the environment less hospitable for the virus,” Barnabas said.

Researchers are looking for 2,000 people who know they’ve been exposed recently, in Washington and New York. They’re looking for people with others in the same household who’ve tested positive. Health care workers who treated a COVID-19 patient without personal protective equipment would also qualify to sign up for the study.

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Participants will have a video talk with a doctor, then get a box delivered, containing instructions, a biohazard bag, and enough swabs and test tubes to take specimens from your nose every day for 14 days.

A courier will pick up the specimens daily from participants.

Inside the box, randomized participants will also get daily pills to take – either hydroxychloroquine or a placebo pill.

“If the hydroxychloroquine is working, the attack rate will be lower in that group,” Barnabas said.

But all the recent attention on the drug is causing shortages across the country, with some pharmacists raising the alarm.

Anthony Jones of Seattle has lupus and relies on hydroxychloroquine. He says he’s taken it every day for the past 19 years.

“It’s just a pill, but it’s an important pill,” he said. “If you don’t have that, what I experience is swollen joints, a lot of fatigue,” he said.

Recent data show chloroquine orders spiked 3,000% in March and hydroxychloroquine orders rose 260%

Jones said he’s glad to hear about new potential for the drug he relies on to manage lupus but the shortages worry him. He managed to get two months’ supply of hydroxychloroquine for now.

“It’s nerve-wracking. You hear all these things and you don't know if the access or availability is still going to be with lupus patients,” Jones said.

UW researchers said all the hydroxychloroquine needed for the study was donated by manufacturer Sandoz, a Novartis company, and the study wouldn’t affect supply for patients who regularly use the drug.

Test results from the study should come back as early as this summer.

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