STD antibiotic faces shortages after Trump promotes it as coronavirus treatment
A commonly prescribed antibiotic used to treat sexually transmitted infections and other conditions is facing a shortage after President Trump promoted it as a potential coronavirus treatment.
Demand for azithromycin tablets — better known by its brand name Z-Pack — is soaring as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the U.S.
Nine drug manufacturers are reporting shortages of azithromycin to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with several citing increased demand.
Demand is highest in New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., with more than 222,000 confirmed cases, said Paula Gurz, senior director of pharmacy for Premier, a health care services company.
“This is likely a result of COVID-19, with this product being talked about in combination with Hydroxychloriquine as a treatment,” Gurz said.
Some doctors are using azithromycin combined with hydroxychloriquine — an anti-malarial medication — to treat COVID-19 after the FDA loosened restrictions on how the drugs can be used.
There is limited evidence about whether the two drugs are an effective treatment for COVID-19, but clinical trials are underway in the U.S. and other countries.
Premier’s data shows a 240 percent increase in demand for the drug between February and March, but providers are only getting 15 percent of the pills they’ve ordered.
The shortage of the antibiotic has been problematic for doctors and clinicians battling the STD epidemic in the U.S., with rates of infection hitting a record high in 2018.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends injections of antibiotics to treat gonorrhea and syphilis, but that is often not feasible as STD clinics reduce their services or staff, and patients stay home and practice social distancing.
Providers are prescribing azithromycin tablets as an alternative but are running into problems finding it, said Christopher Hall, an infectious disease doctor and chairman of the clinical advisory council for the National Coalition of STD Directors.
“We’re put in a position of having to use alternative regimens and then some of those alternative regimens aren’t even available,” Hall said.
The shortage is most concerning in the case of pregnant women, for whom azithromycin is the only approved treatment for chlamydia.
Hall said in limited circumstances he’s seen “hoarding” of the antibiotic.
“There is very mixed data as to whether it will even be effective for COVID. But the downside for us is that it’s made it more challenging to treat our patients,” he said. “It’s one of the most commonly used drugs in STI care. So we worry a lot about what would happen if the national supply were being repurposed.”
Some of the companies reporting shortages of the antibiotic don’t expect it to be resolved until July at the earliest. Others provided no timeline to the FDA of how long they expected the shortage to last.
President Trump has repeatedly promoted hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a potential treatment for COVID-19.
There are also shortages of hydroxychloroquine, creating problems for patients who use it to treat Lupus and arthritis.
“Hydroxychloroquine and the Z-pack, I think, as a combination, probably, it’s looking very, very good,” Trump said during a press conference last month.