The lockdown wind is breezing throughout the world and anxious people are waiting with bated breath for a sprinkling of good news that will save humanity from the raging new coronavirus, Covid-19.
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By Farai Diza - Freelance journalist
South Africa is currently undergoing its 21-day Covid-19 national lockdown in an attempt to flatten the curve on the pandemic that has already killed more than 40 000 worldwide, caused markets to crash and set scientists scrambling for a solution.
While the lockdown has given some locals a moment to learn more about the new coronavirus, others have become dangerous ‘social media’ doctors by disseminating misinformed chain messages claiming to have found the cure – an anti-malaria drug.
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Why is it being penned as a possible cure?
Chloroquine is among a diverse range of medicines that are being investigated by international and local medical experts as a potential treatment remedy for the coronavirus.
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News recently broke that a local pharmaceutical company, Austell Laboratories, had received permission from the national drugs regulatory authority to import 500 000 Chloroquine phosphate tablets for use in severely ill Covid-19 patients.
Though still being used, the anti-malaria drug is no longer a widely prescribed pill for treating malaria due to its numerous negative side effects. It is, however, still strongly used for treating severe rheumatoid arthritis.
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It is also being used by doctors worldwide in the treatment of extremely sick Covid-19 patients even though its effectiveness is yet to be documented.
Chloroquine is being administered in the official guidelines for treatment in South Korea, China and South Africa. It is also being officially trialled in the United States, which has prematurely termed it as the ‘miracle cure’.
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World Health Organisation warns there's no evidence Chloroquine cures Covid-19
“WHO does not recommend self-medication with any medicines, including antibiotics as a prevention or cure for Covid-19. People should not stock up on Chloroquine to prevent Covid-19. There is no vaccine and no specific medicine to prevent or treat Covid-19,” reads a statement issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The drug is being tested as treatment for Covid-19 and is not a cure.
And health experts are warning South Africans to stay away from the drug because there has not been any medical proof or data records proving that it can combat the deadly virus.
“The evidence for using Chloroquine in Covid-19 is weak, although studies have been quite promising. As you can imagine, many countries have taken interest in procuring the drug,” said Dr Jeremy Nel, a specialist physician and Wits University infectious disease fellow.
Dr Nel is leading the South African Solidarity Research Team alongside Professor Helen Rees. They are working with 30 senior academics, researchers and clinicians from eight medical schools in the country to review evidence from laboratory and clinical studies.
Austell Pharmacies CEO, Suhail Gani, stated that the most important person to prescribe the medication must be a qualified medical doctor.
“What the guideline states at this moment in time is that this drug should be used in patients who have underlying conditions such as heart or lung conditions or patients who suffer from severe disease. It is important to note that the person who takes the big decision is the doctor and they will decide whether one requires it or not,” said Gani.
Numerous TV news channels reported about a United States man who died upon self-medicating with Chloroquine. This after US president Donald Trump suggested that the trial was showing “very encouraging results” fuelling consumer interest around the world.
Nigeria also recorded two Chloroquine related poisonings and searches for the drug have spiked, according to Google Trends Data.
SA’s medicines regulator, SA Health Products Regulatory Authority, is at the forefront of these warnings, calling upon pharmacies to ensure that the drug is only made available to patients who need it.
“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 a communiqué issued by the regulator.
Alongside supermarkets, pharmacies are part of the stores which are permitted to open during the ongoing lockdown and the rush for self-cure medication is anticipated.
The Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa also sent out an advisory to its affiliates informing them that Chloroquine has no scientific benefit for Covid-19 and asked them to discourage consumers from buying the drug in bulk.
The World Health Organisation is currently working on an international study known as the Public Health Emergency Solidarity Trial, which is investigating what it believes to be the four most promising candidate therapies for the raging coronavirus.
These are Chloroquine, Remdesivir, the Lopinavir/ Ritonavir combination alone or in combination with Interferon.
Dr Zweli Mkhize reitterates there is no current cure for Covid-19
Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, who has had his hands full over the last couple of weeks, has previously acknowledged the ongoing Chloroquine trials.
“People have said a lot about Chloroquine. We are aware that there are a whole lot of trials that are going on including issues of a vaccine. We need to be upfront to say currently there is no vaccine available,” he told media.
This comes at a time when scientists are already warning that Covid-19 could become a seasonal disease. Many health care providers, including doctors, have died in their line of duty worldwide and the only relief the world needs right now is a cure.
Various clinical studies are ongoing globally but there hasn’t been any data released from the trials.
The WHO declared coronavirus a global pandemic on 1 March.
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