States work to limit prescriptions of potential coronavirus drugs

NEW YORK (Reuters) - At least four state pharmacy boards have taken steps to limit prescriptions of potential coronavirus treatments touted by U.S. President Donald Trump that are in short supply as demand has surged with the rapid spread of the outbreak.

State pharmacy boards in Texas, Ohio, Idaho and Nevada in recent days moved to restrict who can be prescribed the malaria treatments chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, and how much of the drugs can be prescribed, according to documents filed by the boards. Texas has also limited prescriptions of the antibiotic azithromycin as well as another anti-malarial drug, mefloquine.

There are currently no approved treatments or preventive vaccines for COVID-19, the highly contagious, sometimes deadly respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. Researchers are studying existing treatments and working on experimental ones, but most current patients receive only supportive care such as breathing assistance.

The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), which maintains a list of drug shortages, said hydroxychloroquine was in shortage as of Thursday. It listed four out of eight manufacturers of the drug as being in shortage.

The four pharmacy boards passed rules or guidance that would limit most prescriptions of the drugs to 14 days.

The Nevada and Ohio rules dictate that the drugs can only be used for treatment not prevention of COVID-19. Texas and Idaho said that the prescription needs a diagnosis “consistent with the evidence for its use.”

The new coronavirus that emerged in December in China has spread to more than 170 countries and all 50 U.S. states.

Trump has called on U.S. health regulators to expedite potential therapies aimed at treating COVID-19.

On Saturday, he tweeted about the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, saying it had “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, played down that claim, saying the therapy must be tested to assure its safety and efficacy.

Pharmacists on Saturday said many drug distributors were out of stock of azithromycin and others were limiting sales of the antibiotic.

In addition to malaria, hydroxychloroquine is used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors and pharmacists said hoarding it for coronavirus could hurt patients with those conditions.

Pharmacists have already seen doctors prescribing the drugs for themselves or their families, according to Erin Fox, senior director of drug information at University of Utah Health, which has 12 retail pharmacies.

“We saw this specifically at our organization and we worked quickly to not fill those prescriptions,” Fox said.

Reporting by Michael Erman; Editing by Bill Berkrot