Coronavirus: Online demand for hydroxychloroquine skyrockets after Donald Trump, Elon Musk comments - study

Internet searches for drugs promoted as potential treatments for COVID-19 by high-profile figures like US President Donald Trump skyrocketed following their remarks, a study has found.

A study conducted by researchers from several United Kingdom and United States universities analysed online demand for antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine after Trump and entrepreneur Elon Musk suggested in March it was worth considering them as COVID-19 treatment. 

Trump at one point said that hydroxychloroquine, when taken with an antibiotic, could become "one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine", despite no evidence the drugs help with COVID-19.

The study found that following their comments, internet searches originating from the United States for the drugs with terms such as "buy", "order", and "Amazon" jumped significantly in comparison to a period beforehand. Queries for purchasing chloroquine rose 442 percent in the days after the pair's comments in mid-March, while searches for hydroxychloroquine jumped a massive 1389 percent. 

The results were published through a research paper shared by the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine (JAMA).

"The first and largest spike in searches corresponded directly with Musk’s tweet and Trump’s first televised endorsements, respectively, with the latter occurring on March 19," the paper says.

"These changes represent about 93,000 and 96,000 more searches than expected for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, respectively, with 216,000 total searches for both drugs over just 14 days."

Demand soared despite warnings that the drugs were unproven combattants to the illness which has spread across the world and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Earlier this month, the European Commission said there were no proven positive effects from the drugs in fighting COVID-19, while last week the United States' Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) warned patients about the drugs' side effects.

"While clinical trials are ongoing to determine the safety and effectiveness of these drugs for COVID-19, there are known side effects of these medications that should be considered," FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said. 

One person is understood to have died in late March after taking chloroquine phosphate in what CNN described as "an apparent attempt to self-medicate for novel coronavirus". The man didn't take a pharmaceutical version of the drug, but an additive often used to clean fish tanks.

The study found that despite news of that poisoning "searches to buy chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine remained substantially above expected levels at 212 percent". 

The research paper described the attention being provided to the drugs as "troublesome" and said public figures shouldn't tout therapies not supported by evidence.

"Google responded to COVID-19 by integrating an educational website into search results related to the outbreak, and this could be expanded to include searches for unapproved COVID-19 therapies," it said.

"Similarly, retailers must establish warnings or withhold products that might be linked to use for COVID-19 treatment, as was exemplified by eBay’s removing chloroquine sales from its site."

New Zealand researchers are part of major clinical trials around the world that include testing hydroxychloroquine. 

After Trump's "game changer" comment, Pharmac put restrictions on the drug due to high demand. It is still available to DHBs partaking in trials.

"There's been a lot of interest in the use of this product for treatment of COVID-19. But there hasn't been any specific evidence to date to confirm that it works for that," Pharmac's director of operations Lisa Williams told RNZ earlier in April.

"We've been seeing a lot more demand for that and hearing from community pharmacy and general practitioners that they were under pressure to prescribe and dispense this product."

More than 3 million people around the world have had COVID-19. There are currently no known medicines or vaccines.

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