PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – President Trump raised a few eyebrows yesterday when he announced he’s taking hydroxychloroquine as a precaution against the coronavirus. The president said “what do you have to lose?” but local doctors told KDKA’s Dr. Maria Simbra it may not be that simple or harmless.

The malaria and anti-inflammatory drug hydroxychloroquine had been hailed as a game changer. A number of observational studies hint that might not be the case.

“We have not seen any benefit at all,” says Allegheny Health Network pulmonary critical care physician, Dr. Tariq Cheema.

The drug worked against the novel coronavirus in the lab.

But recent human studies comparing hospitalized patients getting hydroxychloroquine to those not getting the medicine show no difference in recovery rates, avoiding the intensive care unit, relief of symptoms or death.

Plus, the hydroxychloroquine groups had more problems.

“The biggest concern that we have is arrhythmias,” says Dr. Cheema. “Hydroxychloroquine can affect the eyes. There are a lot of side effects, even though the medicine has been around for a long time, but you have to be careful using it.”

(Photo Credit: KDKA’s Meghan Schiller)

This isn’t the final word, though, because the observations are muddled by use with other drugs, varying degrees of illness, other health conditions and a wide range of doses.

“I would caution people in the community from just picking up the drug and using it without a close monitoring process in place, such as in the context of a clinical trial,” says UPMC pulmonary critical care physician, Dr. Bryan McVerry.

In fact, the FDA warns against using the medication outside of a clinical trial. And measures, such as required diagnosis codes, prevent inappropriate use.

“About a month ago, it got pretty intense. Calling to ask if we had the drug,” says Asti Drug pharmacist, Dan Asti. “The demand has sufficiently gone down, rather quickly.”

The Allegheny Health Network is not using hydroxychloroquine, and instead favors other medicines available through studies.

“Without a proven, randomized, controlled clinical trial, I don’t think it’s a drug that we should be using at this point,” says Dr. Cheema.

UPMC is using hydroxychloroquine through a couple placebo-controlled inpatient studies. UPMC is also taking part in a few outpatient studies to see if the drug prevents infection in high risk people.

Dr. Maria Simbra