VA placed 'emergency' orders for $208,000-worth of controversial antimalarial drug

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The Department of Veterans Affairs placed an "emergency" order for an antimalarial drug recently touted as a potential COVID-19 treatment the same day department officials said it was "irresponsible" to suggest the medication had such a use. 

In March, the VA Inspector General's Office conducted oversight of VA's response to the pandemic so far, including supplies. 

Leaders at eight of the 58 hospitals told investigators they were low on supplies of hydroxychloroquine. 

The Inspector General checked on VA's coronavirus response. Here's what it found.

But Veterans Health Administration leaders took issue with investigators asking about that drug, saying it demonstrated a "dangerous lack of expertise on COVID-19 and pandemic response." 

"We object to the (OIG's) assertions that a 14-day supply of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine would have any merit. This is both inaccurate and irresponsible," VHA leaders wrote in a response included in the investigators' report. "There are active investigations into these drugs and many others, as discussed by Dr. Anthony Fauci. Yet no conclusions have been made on their effectiveness." 

VHA leaders' response to investigators was dated March 26, the same day the VA inked a contract to purchase the drug, as first reported by Stars & Stripes. 

The $40,000 contract is with McKesson Corp for a supply of 200mg tablets. In the contract's description, VA wrote, "COVID-19 emergency buy." 

In the following days, VA purchased a total of about $208,000 of the drug, according to federal contract records. The second contract, with Golden State Medical Supply Inc. for $168,000 on April 1, also included "COVID-19 emergency" in the description. 

VA officials told Connecting Vets Thursday that most of the recent orders for the drug would go to treat non-coronavirus patients with conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. 

"VA has used hydroxychloroquine for years to treat a number of non-COVID related conditions," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said. "The bulk of this order will be used for those purposes." 

But some of it will go to COVID-19 patients, Noel said. 

"VA is only using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients in cases where veteran patients and their providers determine it is medically necessary and in a manner consistent with current FDA guidance," Noel said. 

VA has had previous contracts to order the drug in 2007, 2012 2015 and 2016, federal contract records show. 

President Donald Trump has repeatedly promoted the drug as a potential treatment for the coronavirus, which has already killed at least 174 veterans and thousands of other Americans and sickened thousands more. 

But experts aren't as confident and so far there's little evidence to suggest the drug is an effective treatment for the virus generally. 

Fauci, America's leading infectious disease doctor and immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for nearly three decades, has said repeatedly that the drug may not be an effective treatment, let alone the miracle cure some hope for.

"We still need to do the kinds of studies that definitively prove whether any intervention -- not just this one -- is truly safe and effective," Fauci said in a recent Fox News interview. 

While a few, limited studies have shown the drug had promising results in mild COVID-19 cases, those studies were small, lacked control groups and at least one has been discredited under further review. 

The Food and Drug Administration in March granted emergency approval of the drug for coronavirus treatment in some cases, such as when possible benefits outweigh risks and there is no alternative treatment available. 

On Wednesday, leaders of the American Heart Association, the Heart Rhythm Society and the American College of Cardiology released a paper cautioning use of the drug to treat COVID-19. Experts said that the drug could affect or disrupt heart rhythm in patients with cardiovascular disease. 

Hydroxychloroquine can carry side effects including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, dizziness and headache. Serious side effects could include slow heartbeat; symptoms of heart failure (shortness of breath, swelling feet or ankles, unusual tiredness); mental changes such as anxiety, depression, hallucinations or suicidal thoughts; hearing changes such as ringing in the ears or hearing loss; easy bruising or bleeding; signs of infection; muscle weakness; hair loss; and involuntary movements such as facial twitching. 


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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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