Coronavirus: UAE secures 5.5 million anti-malaria pills to treat Covid-19 patients

Government thanks India for shipment of hydroxychloroquine

FILE - In this Thursday, April 9, 2020 file photo, a chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in New Delhi, India. Scientists in Brazil have stopped part of a study of the malaria drug touted as a possible coronavirus treatment after heart rhythm problems developed in one-quarter of people given the higher of two doses being tested. Chloroquine and a similar drug, hydroxychloroquine, have been pushed by President Donald Trump after some early tests suggested the drugs might curb coronavirus entering cells.  (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
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A shipment of drugs used to treat Covid-19 patients was on its way to the UAE on Sunday after India eased an export ban.

The UAE embassy in New Delhi said the first batch of 5.5 million hydroxychloroquine pills was due to arrive in the Emirates soon.

Hydroxychloroquine is an anti-malaria drug that some doctors have found helps patients with Covid-19.

“We highly appreciate the co-operation of the Indian government in facilitating the procedures for obtaining the necessary approvals,” the embassy wrote on Twitter.

We highly appreciate the cooperation of the Indian government in facilitating the procedures for obtaining the necessary approvals

India makes about 70 per cent of the world’s hydroxychloroquine, which has been used since the 1950s to protect people against malaria.

Major Indian pharmaceutical companies have increased production to meet global demand and can produce about 40 tonnes of pills a month.

The pills, which are stamped with HCQS, made global headlines when US President Donald Trump endorsed its use last month.

Amid the rush of orders that followed from countries worldwide, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ordered an export ban on March 25.

It has eased the ban in recent days and will ship the drug to several dozen countries, Indian media reported at the weekend.

Pavan Kapoor, India’s ambassador to the UAE, said the request was approved within a few days because of the special relationship between the two nations.

“Since hydroxychloroquine is on the restricted list, it can only be exported if the government gives approval,” Mr Kapoor said.

Middle East countries that have authorised its use or are conducting trials include Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Bahrain, which reports said was among the first to use it on patients.

Dr Rohit Kumar, medical director at Medeor Hospital in Dubai, which is working with the government to test and treat Covid-19 patients, said he had used the drug on about 15 patients.

“These were symptomatic patients in the ward and they did get better," Dr Kumar said. "We have not used it on serious patients in the ICU.

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“We are using it and patients are getting better but even without it we are getting results.

“We need a broader trial and only then can we say if it’s beneficial or not.”

He said some doctors in India were taking hydroxychloroquine to protect themselves, although he repeated that a major trial was needed to determine if that was effective.

How it works

Hydroxychloroquine calms the body’s immune system and prevents it from overreacting to a virus or illness.

This is important, given that inflammation and fever are among the tools used by humans to fight off disease.

As such, it is used to regulate conditions that cause the immune system to flare up, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

An overreaction of the immune system, including "cytokine storm syndrome", can be highly dangerous, as we explain here.

How it fights malaria is largely unknown, but it has proved to be effective in mild and moderate cases since first produced in the 1950s.

As with most antimalarial drugs, side effects can include nausea and diarrhoea. It can also cause more serious problems, including eye damage, if used long term.

But most concern focuses on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

While estimated to affect only 1 per cent or so of those given the drug, it could lead to many thousands of deaths if given to millions of patients.

How effective is it against Covid-19?

Medical opinion remains divided over how effective hydroxychloroquine is against patients with Covid-19.

Because of the speed at which the pandemic has spread, there are no conclusive medical trials on its effectiveness.

Some doctors have said the pills help to bring patients’ symptoms under control, while others have stopped using it.

In the US, it was widely prescribed in recent weeks in the absence of a vaccine or treatment.

Dr Bushra Mina, chief of pulmonology at a major hospital in Manhattan, told The New York Times he was giving any patient who was not on the verge of death a five-day course of the drug.

“It’s a battle and your options are very limited,” Dr Mina said.

Last week, researchers in China published the initial results of a small-scale study of 150 patients, which largely proved inconclusive.

The study, which has not yet been reviewed by peers, found those who were given it did not fare significantly better than those who did not, although it appeared to have some effect on inflammation.

A lab study published in the journal Nature in February found the similar drug chloroquine could block the coronavirus from invading cells, which it must do to spread and cause illness.

But it was noted that the effect on cultured samples in dishes does not necessary have the same effect on humans.

Previous studies have found hydroxychloroquine has almost no effect on patients with seasonal flu or other viruses.