The numbers of desperate people attempting to buy the drug hydroxychloroquine has spiked since President Donald Trump and other high profile figures touted it as a COVID-19 treatment.
But new studies show the drug – closely related to the commonly used drug chloroquine and used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune diseases – could be dangerous or even deadly.
It comes as an antiviral drug originally developed to treat Ebola was hailed by US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci as the first effective treatment for the coronavirus.
A trial found patients with severe manifestations of the coronavirus showed signs of improvement within five days of taking the unlicensed, experimental drug called Remdesivir.
As for hydroxychloroquine, Google searches by people looking to buy the drug were 1389 times higher following claims by the US President that the drug was an effective COVID-19 treatment, according to researchers from the University of California.
The first and largest spike in searches corresponded directly with Elon Musk’s March 17 tweet promoting the drug and and Mr Trump’s first televised endorsements on April 4, respectively.
The researchers said this suggests that in times of public health crises, demand for unproven and potentially hazardous COVID-19 treatments is massively increased by endorsements.
Mr Trump had been talking up the drug as a treatment for coronavirus.
“It’s a very strong, powerful medicine. But it doesn’t kill people,” Mr Trump told reporters earlier this month.
“We have some very good results and some very good tests. What really do we have to lose?”
Infectious diseases physician at Australia National University and former adviser to the World Health Organisation, Professor Peter Collignon, told The New Daily it was concerning people are promoting a drug that has had mixed results.
“When it’s promoted by Donald Trump, people start taking them inappropriately,” he said.
“It is a real worry that it’s being over-promoted with not enough data. There are other studies to say it does not work or causes more harm.”
Professor Collignon said the mixed results from studies showed we need to do more testing in very controlled conditions.
“When this is first promoted there was one study which showed benefits, but now there’s enough data to show it may not be any good, it may, in fact, kill people,” he said.
“You should only be able to use it if you’re part of a study. It may well cause more harm than good.
“I do think we need proper studies and strong regulations should be put in place if you’re in a study.”
There is no conclusive data to show the drug is effective and some studies have reported and concerning rate of death when testing it on COVID-19 patients.
A study into the benefit of the drug on US veterans showed there was no benefit to taking it.
Alarmingly, there were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care, researchers reported.
Another study in Brazil, which involved 81 patients in hospital with severe cases of COVID-19 taking a combination of drugs, was aborted after some patients developed irregular heartbeats and nearly two dozen died.
They were all taking doses of hydroxychloroquine daily as part of the trial, the results published in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed.
But in another French study the drug seemed to reduce the time that the novel coronavirus was present in people.
Essentially, the jury is out on if hydroxychloroquine can work as a treatment for the coronavirus.
Although it’s uncertain the anti-malarial drug is effective in helping the body fight COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine has found some passionate fans.
It’s not just President Trump and Elon Musk.
Mining magnate and former Australian politician Clive Palmer bought millions of doses of it and donated them to the National Medical Stockpile.
He also took out a three-page advertisement in News Corp publications claiming he had purchased the drug as it was the ‘best hope’ for those infected with the disease.
A study of hydroxychloroquine is currently under way in more than 70 Australian hospitals.
Royal Melbourne Hospital is trialing a combination of lopinavir/ritonavir and hydroxychloroquine.
“We have designed the trial so that it’s responsive and adaptive,” Royal Melbourne infectious diseases clinician Steven Tong said.
“This means that if one of the drugs is proving to be effective, we can adapt the trial to focus on that treatment. Conversely, if a drug isn’t effective, or is causing severe side effects, we can stop it.”
Professor Collignon said people needed to fully understand that, so far, the only effective way to stop the coronavirus was through “old-school” public health measures.
“Wash your hands, avoid crowds, avoid people who are sick, and don’t go to work if you yourself are sick,” he said.