The origins of hydroxychloroquine can be traced back hundreds of years to South America, where the bark of the cinchona tree appears to have been used by Andean populations to treat shivering. European missionaries eventually brought the bark to Europe, where it was used to treat malaria. In 1820, French researchers isolated the substance in the bark responsible for its beneficial effects. They named it “quinine.” When the supply from South America began to dry up, the British and Dutch decided to grow the tree on plantations.
Over time, synthetic versions were developed, including a drug called chloroquine, which was created in the midst of World War II in an effort to spare overseas American troops from malaria. As it turned out, troops with rashes and arthritis saw an improvement in symptoms after using this anti-malarial medication. After the war, a related drug was created, one with fewer side-effects when taken long-term: hydroxychloroquine. It went on to be used to treat many types of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The latter, which disproportionately affects women, used to cut lives short — typically from failure of the kidneys. Those numbers have been reduced with strict management of the disease, but the Lupus Foundation of America estimates that 10 to 15 percent of patients die prematurely due to complications of the disease.
Jinoos Yazdany, a researcher and chief of the Division of Rheumatology at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, added that there is strong clinical trial data demonstrating that taking a group of lupus patients off of hydroxychloroquine results in lupus flares. “I am less concerned about a short interruption of a few weeks,” she said in an email message, “but anything longer than a month puts patients at risk.”
Whether or not that will happen is unclear, but Sparks said he has been receiving a raft queries from both lupus and non-lupus patients eager to know more about — and access — hydroxychloroquine: “Can I use this? Should I stockpile it? Can I get refills?” Sparks compares the current medication shortage to the ventilator shortage, where manufacturers make just enough of a certain supply to meet the demand. “We don’t have stockpiles of hydroxychloroquine sitting around,” he said.