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Conservative Group Pushes for FDA Approval of Drug to Treat Coronavirus

26/03/2020 2:00pm

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By Julie Bykowicz 

The conservative pro-business group Job Creators Network is asking U.S. doctors to advocate for federal approval of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the new coronavirus.

In text messages and targeted Facebook ads that began this week, the group steers recipients to a petition to President Trump that asks him to "immediately cut through this red tape" to get more hydroxychloroquine into the marketplace, noting the drug is in short supply. There is no strong evidence that the drug has anti-coronavirus effects, though the U.S. is now testing that theory.

Home Depot co-founder and longtime Republican donor Bernard Marcus formed the Job Creators Network about a decade ago. Mr. Marcus was a donor to Mr. Trump's 2016 campaign and said he will support his re-election bid. Job Creators Network bills itself as an advocate for small business interests in Washington and in 2018 spent more than $5 million on a bus tour promoting the tax cuts that Mr. Trump had signed into law, according to its tax documents.

Job Creators Network declined to identify who is funding the petition drive, which the group says is costing just over $10,000. The nonprofit foundation arm of the group is named on the ads. Past funding for the network has come from hedge fund founder Robert Mercer's family foundation, according to tax documents, and its board includes executives of large companies.

The business group's goal is murky: It is asking Mr. Trump to do something he already wants to do -- obtain Food and Drug Administration approval to treat the coronavirus with hydroxychloroquine. Even without that green light, doctors already are able to prescribe it.

Drug makers Novartis, Mylan and Amneal have pledged in recent days to produce more hydroxychloroquine, noting its potential use in the fight against the global pandemic.

The Job Creators Network began its petition drive after hearing about hydroxychloroquine from doctors it has worked with since last fall on an unrelated push for a free-market health care system, said Elaine Parker, a spokeswoman for the network.

"We're not advocating that people should take the drug," Ms. Parker said. "We're advocating that doctors should have the opportunity to prescribe it if they want to do so. The problem is no one can find it. It's a supply-side issue."

She said the group hopes Mr. Trump can "ungum the bureaucracy" and get more hydroxychloroquine to market. She said she expects to get the petition to the White House by the end of this week and said about 700 physicians have signed it so far.

Mr. Trump first mentioned hydroxychloroquine and other potential coronavirus treatments at a press conference March 19, and he asserted that the FDA had already approved it for that use. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn immediately said that wasn't accurate, and that the drug would be available "in the setting of a clinical trial."

There has been little research on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating coronavirus; testing has only been conducted on a small number of patients. In addition to malaria, the drug is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said a study of hydroxychloroquine and coronavirus was scheduled to start earlier this week.

The Job Creators Network petition says that in addition to a national shortage of hydroxychloroquine, "there is growing pressure to prevent physicians from treating the coronavirus with hydroxychloroquine as it is 'off label.'"

Advocacy groups for lupus and arthritis patients said some people who need hydroxychloroquine for approved treatments have already begun having trouble getting the drug.

"We can't forget about the people who need the drug right now," said Mike Donnelly, a spokesman for Lupus Foundation of America.

Lupus Foundation of America, American College of Rheumatology, American Academy of Dermatology, and the Arthritis Foundation sent a letter Monday to the White House Coronavirus Task Force expressing concern that the interest in using the drug for the new coronavirus has "exacerbated their already limited availability for patients who rely on them to meet their medical needs."

Ms. Parker said doctors have seen hydroxychloroquine work for coronavirus patients, too. Some doctors who have appeared on Fox News programs favored by the president have also promoted it.

The Job Creators Network petition cites Physicians for Reform as a partner. The nonprofit group has seen almost no funding in recent years, its tax forms show. The group's president, Dr. C.L. Gray, a North Carolina physician, said in a statement provided by the Job Creators Network that hydroxychloroquine "may be one of the best treatments available (as of today)" and yet "it remains essentially unavailable in communities such as my own."

Dr. Gray said the petition "will draw attention to this problem."

Several doctors have flagged the text messages on social media, expressing skepticism about the push. "The stupid is coming in by texts now," one Twitter user whose bio says he is a cardiologist wrote.

A screen shot he and other doctors shared on Twitter reads, "Tell Trump to CUT RED TAPE & make hydroxychloroquine available to you and your patients" and links to the petition to the president.

A small batch of Facebook ads linking to the same petition began circulating on Tuesday, the social media site's advertising database shows. "Doctors who think hydroxychloroquine needs to be approved to fight coronavirus need to make their voice heard NOW. Please sign our petition which will go directly to President Trump," the ads say.

Write to Julie Bykowicz at julie.bykowicz@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 26, 2020 09:45 ET (13:45 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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