A New Jersey lawmaker has become an advocate for a drug touted by President Trump as a COVID-19 cure despite its mixed results and warnings from the medical community about its dangers.

State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, has spent weeks trying to get the Murphy administration to stockpile hydroxychloroquine and to loosen prescription restrictions that the administration put in place to combat hoarding of the drugs, which are needed by people with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

The anti-malarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine got the spotlight after Trump first highlighted them during news conferences last month. The drugs, which have been used for decades to treat malaria, have been tried as a treatment for the serious respiratory complications caused by the novel coronavirus.

"What do you have to lose?" Trump said earlier this month about the medications.

Last week, more evidence emerged suggesting the drug could be ineffective or even dangerous.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors against prescribing hydroxychloroquine a month after the agency had authorized its limited use in hospitals, citing the potential for fatal heart side effects.

A preliminary study by New York University also found that hydroxychloroquine, when coupled with the antibiotic azithromycin, a therapy also referenced by Trump, didn't improve recovery rates and could increase risk for cardiac arrest. A coronavirus panel at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases last week also recommended against this combo. A Brazilian study of chloroquine, meanwhile, had to be aborted after researchers feared the doses were killing COVID-19 patients.

And a retrospective look at 368 U.S. veterans hospital patients found that hydroxychloroquine provided no benefit and in fact may have caused more deaths.

But Pennacchio last week said none of the studies are conclusive and pointed to other research suggesting that the drug is more effective in the earlier stages of the disease rather than when patients are on ventilators, which is when many hospitalized patients are given the drugs.

"I wish it would have been a better study because I want this drug to work. I want *a* drug to work, OK?" Pennacchio said. "It seems like everybody jumps onto one study when the results are negative, almost rooting for the drug not to work."

Joseph Pennacchio
State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio. (AP File)

Pennacchio, a retired dentist, says the Murphy administration should "unshackle" doctors by lifting last month's Division of Consumer Affairs regulation limiting prescriptions of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine only for patients with confirmed COVID-19 tests. The state Attorney General's Office said physicians and dentists were writing prescriptions for themselves and relatives.

The state later loosened that regulation by allowing doctors to prescribe the drug for patients in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes before their test results are returned, which can take days.

To address hoarding, Pennacchio said the state should stockpile the drugs and develop a distribution system.

"They’re hoarding the drug because they think it works. They’re hoarding because they want to be able to use it on their patients, their loved ones and themselves," Pennacchio said.

The lawmaker says he reads research papers for himself and consults with physicians. The New Jersey Doctor Patient Alliance, a group with less than 400 members, supports his efforts to lift the prescription restrictions.

"Murphy has his advisors but I hope to have Murphy's ear and I hope he could maybe listen to the advisors that I have and give it a shot," Pennacchio said, repeating the president's line. "What do you have to lose? It’s a safe, effective drug."

Some use of hydroxychloroquine appears to be based more on desperation rather than pure science. Earlier this month, Dr. Naresh Patel told NJ.com that all COVID-19 patients at Christ Hospital in Jersey City were being administered hydroxychloroquine but acknowledged that he didn't know it if worked.

“The patients [are] getting better, I don’t know whether I can tell you it’s the drug or the oxygen […] it is hard to tell," Patel was quoted as saying. A spokeswoman for the hospital last week did not return New Jersey 101.5's request for an update on the hospital's use of hydroxychloroquine.

Pennacchio has cited Turkish health minister Fahrettin Koca, who said that early use of the drug "played a big role in reducing the rate of lung infection among the patients.”

He cited another retrospective study that looked at 16 countries and found that those that used the anti-malaria drugs fared better in terms of death rates.

Pennacchio pointed to the work of a French infectious disease specialist who has been promoting the use of hydrochloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19. The scientist, Didier Raoult, has also been derided as a "witch doctor" and the ethics and conclusions of his research have been called into question.

Since 2007, Pennacchio has received at least $4,350 in contributions from Novartis and $500 from Bayer, both manufacturers of hydroxychloroquine drugs, a New Jersey 101.5 review of campaign finance reports shows. Pennacchio said the contributions are of no consequence, pointing to his work opposing mandatory vaccination legislation as evidence that he's not beholden to the industry.

"I'm not trying to make a pharmaceutical company rich. I'm trying to save lives," Pennacchio said. "The companies, they're giving us this for nothing."

Drugmakers Sandoz and Bayer last month donated more than 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to the national stockpile. Pharmaceutical companies have also been donating the drugs for use in research.

"Nobody is saying this is the miracle cure. I wish it was," Pennacchio said. "What's the alternative? What else are you offering patients? What other hope are you offering patients?"

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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