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VA has administered malaria drug to 1,300 COVID-19 positive veterans, officials say

The Long Island State Veterans Home said that

The Long Island State Veterans Home said that the administering of hydroxychloroquine was done under "direct" medical supervision and after consulting residents and family members. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The Department of Veterans Affairs has administered hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug President Donald Trump has trumpeted without scientific evidence as a potential treatment for the coronavirus, to 1,300 COVID-19 positive vets, including residents of the Long Island State Veterans Home, officials said Thursday.

In total, about 13% of the more than 10,000 veterans currently being treated for coronavirus at VA medical facilities have been given the drug, agency officials wrote in response to questions raised by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Hydroxychloroquine was used to treat 30 COVID-19-positive residents at the State Veterans Home in Stony Brook, but officials stopped administering the drug in late April following an FDA drug safety communication, officials said Thursday night.

The nursing home, serving veterans and their dependents and operated by Stony Brook University, has one of the highest death tolls among nursing homes on Long Island, with 77 fatalities at the 350-bed facility as of Tuesday, according to a letter posted to its website.

“Under the direct supervision of our medical director and attending physician, and after careful consultation with respective residents and their family members, specific residents meeting the appropriate criteria, hydroxychloroquine was administered to treat a small cohort of medically appropriate COVID-19 positive residents receiving subacute care at the Long Island State Veterans Home,” according to a statement from the facility. “The use of hydroxychloroquine was immediately discontinued for the treatment of COVID-19 positive residents following the drug safety communication issued by the FDA on April 24, 2020.”

It is not clear how many other of New York’s 79 VA facilities, including seven on Long Island, have been administering hydroxychloroquine, which has been used for decades to treat autoimmune conditions such as lupus but has not yet shown to be effective in treating COVID-19. Representatives from the VA Medical Center in Northport, which runs five clinics on Long Island, did not respond to questions about whether they have administered hydroxychloroquine.

In an interview Thursday, Schumer called the VA's disclosure — which didn’t include any specific locations where the drug was administered — "infuriating" and demanded a geographic breakdown of the 1,300 veterans taking the drug.

"This is mind-boggling and incredible," said Schumer, who first sought answers from the VA about its use of hydroxychloroquine during a May 10 news conference. "They are using our veterans as guinea pigs for a drug that has been discredited."

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Schumer said he wants to know if the 1,300 veterans and their families gave explicit permission to be treated with the drug.

"Every family of a veteran has the right to know," he said. "We need to know if they've gotten permission. And we need to know what the purpose is if everyone else is discrediting this drug."

Trump, who touted the drug for months relying primarily on anecdotal evidence, raised eyebrows this week when he revealed that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off COVID-19.

The move was criticized by many in the scientific and medical community, who point to recent studies showing the drug to be ineffective in treating the virus while potentially dangerous to older Americans who are shown to be the most at risk.

The Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health have warned clinicians not to prescribe hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 outside of a hospital or clinical trial setting because of potentially fatal side effects, including cardiac arrest. The FDA warned that patients who suffer from heart and kidney conditions could be at increased risk by taking the drug.

But the VA purchased 6.33 million tablets of the drug between Feb. 1 and April 23 "in anticipation of a nationwide hydroxychloroquine shortage," officials told Schumer.

Since the start of the pandemic, the VA said it has treated 8,800 patients with hydroxychloroquine — 7,500 for non-COVID conditions and another 1,300 infected with the virus.

“In certain cases, medical providers and patients want to try hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, and FDA guidance, which VA follows, permits that," said Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman in a statement. "This is exactly the same principle Congress affirmed when it passed the Right to Try Act. VA only permits use of the drug after ensuring veterans and caretakers are aware of potential risks associated with it, as we do with any other drug or treatment.” 

The VA's Office of Research and Development said it is planning a study to look at whether hydroxychloroquine will prevent infections in veterans exposed to COVID-19. The agency is also in discussions with drug company Novartis to have some of its facilities participate in a multistate clinical trial for patients with moderate to severe cases of the virus.

The San Francisco VA Medical Center has begun its own clinical trial looking at hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a potential coronavirus treatment while the Atlanta VA Medical Center is assessing the effectiveness of sarilumab, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, to treat patients with severe infections, the agency said.

Former Department of Health and Human Services official Dr. Rick Bright alleged in a whistleblower complaint this month that the Trump administration wanted to flood New York and New Jersey with the drug. Bright said he was demoted after refusing to promote hydroxychloroquine, citing little scientific evidence affirming its efficacy as a coronavirus treatment.

The VA told Schumer that neither the White House or the Department of Health and Human Services pressured it to prescribe hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients.

"The idea that VA health care providers would make treatment decisions based on anything other than the best medical interests of our patients is preposterous," the agency said in the letter. "VA, like so many medical facilities across this nation, is in a race to keep patients alive during this pandemic and we are using as many tools as we can."

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