A packet of Nivaquine tablets that contain chloroquine. Picture: GERARD JULIEN / AFP
A packet of Nivaquine tablets that contain chloroquine. Picture: GERARD JULIEN / AFP

SA’s medicines regulator has warned consumers to stop buying an antimalaria drug in anticipation of Covid-19 infection, saying there is no evidence that it combats the coronavirus.

The regulator also said stockpiling the drug could deprive patients in dire need of the product. The call comes as the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in SA reached 554 on Monday, and the global tally soared past 395,000.  

There are currently no approved drugs to prevent or treat Covid-19, which is caused by the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus. But media reports of chloroquine being investigated as a potential therapy for the respiratory disease, along with widely reported comments by US President Donald Trump inaccurately describing it as showing “very encouraging results” have fuelled consumer interest around the globe. On Sunday, a US man died after self-medicating with chloroquine, and on Monday health officials in Nigeria sounded a warning after three people over-dosed on the drug.

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) said it had asked pharmacies to step up their management of products containing chloroquine to help curb stockpiling, and ensure the drug remained available for patients who needed it.  Chloroquine is no longer widely prescribed for preventing or treating malaria, but is still required in some cases, and is also used for treating severe rheumatoid arthritis.

“Medicine stockpiling by those who do not need chloroquine and other investigational treatments for Covid-19 could have important negative public health consequences including our ability to effectively respond to this international crisis,” said Sahpra , in a notice on its website.

Pharmacy Council registrar Amos Masango said an official comminique had been issued to pharmacies in support of Sahpra’s statement, and pharmacists had been giving guidance on how to manage requests from consumers.

The Pharmaceutical Society of SA has also written to pharmacists, informing them that chloroquine has no proven benefit for Covid-19 and asking them to discourage patients from buying medicines in bulk.

“The bulk buying will cause unnecessary supply issues that could impact on the country’s ability to supply all patients with the medicines they need to stay healthy,” it said.

Chloroquine is among a raft of medicines being investigated as a potential therapy for Covid-19, along with the anti-viral drug remdesivir, a combination of the HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, the multiple-sclerosis drug interferon-beta and the immunosuppressive drug toculizumab, said Sahpra.

So far most of the studies have been done in the laboratory, and there is little or no human data to indicate whether or not these drugs are safe and effective treatments for Covid-19, said the regulator

The World Health Organisation launched an international study called the Solidarity Trial last week to investigate what it believes to be the four most promising candidate therapies for Covid-19: remdesivir, chloroquine, the lopinavir/ritonavir combination alone or in combination with interferon. Scientists are also hoping drugs such as these may protect health workers from infection.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za