The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reinforced its March guidance on when it’s permissible to use hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients and on the multiple risks these drugs pose in a Safety Communication on April 24.
The new communication reiterated the agency’s position from the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) it granted on March 28 to allow hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine treatment of COVID-19 patients only when they are hospitalized and participation in a clinical trial is “not available,” or “not feasible.” The April 24 update to the EUA noted that “the FDA is aware of reports of serious heart rhythm problems in patients with COVID-19 treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, often in combination with azithromycin and other QT-prolonging medicines. We are also aware of increased use of these medicines through outpatient prescriptions.”
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In addition to reiterating the prior limitations on permissible patients for these treatment the agency also said in the new communication that “close supervision is strongly recommended, “ specifying that “we recommend initial evaluation and monitoring when using hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine under the EUA or in clinical trials that investigate these medicines for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19. Monitoring may include baseline ECG, electrolytes, renal function, and hepatic tests.” The communication also highlighted several potential serious adverse effects from hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine that include QT prolongation with increased risk in patients with renal insufficiency or failure, increased insulin levels and insulin action causing increased risk of severe hypoglycemia, hemolysis in selected patients, and interaction with other medicines that cause QT prolongation.
“If a healthcare professional is considering use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine to treat or prevent COVID-19, FDA recommends checking www.clinicaltrials.gov for a suitable clinical trial and consider enrolling the patient,” the statement added.
The FDA’s Safety Communication came a day after the European Medicines Agency issued a similar reminder about the risk for serious adverse effects from treatment with hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, the need for adverse effect monitoring, and the unproven status of purported benefits from these agents.
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The statement came after ongoing promotion by the Trump administration of hydroxychloroquine, in particular, for COVID-19 despite a lack of evidence.
The FDA’s communication cited recent case reports sent to the FDA, as well as published findings, and reports to the National Poison Data System that have described serious, heart-related adverse events and death in COVID-19 patients who received hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, alone or in combination with azithromycin or another QT-prolonging drug. One recent, notable but not peer-reviewed report on 368 patients treated at any of several U.S. VA medical centers showed no apparent benefit to hospitalized COVID-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine and a signal for increased mortality among certain patients on this drug (medRxiv. 2020 Apr 23; doi: 10.1101/2020.04.16.20065920). Several cardiology societies have also highlighted the cardiac considerations for using these drugs in patients with COVID-19, including a summary coauthored by the presidents of the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, and the Heart Rhythm Society (Circulation. 2020 Apr 8. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.047521), and in guidance from the European Society of Cardiology.