TGA investigating Clive Palmer-funded ads claiming hydroxychloroquine can cure coronavirus

Melissa Davey
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

Prominent advertisements paid for by former federal politician Clive Palmer which promote a malaria drug as a potential “cure” for Covid-19 are “ethically immoral” according to Prof Peter Collignon, a former World Health Organization advisor who worked on Australia’s response to the Sars virus.

The two-page ad in the Australian states the drug, hydroxychloroquine, when combined with another medication could “wipe out the virus in test tubes” and Australia’s drugs regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration [TGA], is now investigating whether the ad breaches drugs advertising rules. The ad says Palmer – who has headed several failed businesses and has been hit with criminal charges following an investigation by the corporate regulator – had agreed to personally fund the acquisition or manufacture of 1m doses “to ensure all Australians would have access to the drug as soon as possible”.

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The ad also quotes the leader of an Australian clinical trial for the drug who describes the combined treatment as a “cure,” even though the trial is yet to begin or receive ethics approval. The ad ran despite the TGA warning that the drug and its derivatives “pose well-known serious risks to patients including cardiac toxicity potentially leading to sudden heart attacks, irreversible eye damage and severe depletion of blood sugar potentially leading to coma”.

Collignon, an infectious diseases physician in Canberra, said “promoting the drug like this on the current available evidence is a bad idea.” He added it was problematic for Palmer to suggest the drug could be bought from other countries, which are already restricting the export of hydroxychloroquine due to shortages for people who need it to treat autoimmune diseases and prevent malaria.

“I suspect he will have great trouble doing this,” Collignon said. “We don’t have malaria here but overseas, particularly in developing countries, they rely on this drug for malaria. So if you gobble up all the supplies of chloroquine from overseas based on the dubious possibility of it working for Covid-19 then people will die of malaria.

“The idea we can just buy it from other countries and keep it here in case it works is just ethically immoral. Yes we should study these drugs and do that properly with strong clinical trials, but promoting those trials in this way just creates hysteria and hype around a drug that the studies so far suggest is not even effective for Covid-19.”

Channel 7 has also promoted Palmer’s involvement. Much of the hype has been generated by a small French study which, although reported by some media, has since been widely disputed, found to have omitted data, and to contain spurious results. A small but well-conducted study from China found no benefit to chloroquine being given to Covid-19 patients.

Guardian Australia has contacted Palmer for comment.

Prof Lyn Gilbert, the chair of the infection control group guiding Australia’s response to Covid-19, questioned the ethics of accepting money from Palmer for research, given he has described himself as a “vaccine questioner” and has been sued for his business practices including failing to pay staff their entitlements, which he later settled.

Related: Decades-old drug in two Australian trials related to Covid-19 but experts urge caution

US president Donald Trump has also been promoting hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment, and Palmer has been tweeting Trump’s comments.

“People have died from this sort of nonsense,” Gilbert said.

“I have fairly extreme views about private support for research, and these are my views only and do not represent everyone’s. But I believe it is difficult to maintain independence and the perception of independence by accepting money like this. I personally wouldn’t accept his money.”

Guardian Australia understands the University of Queensland was caught off guard by the Palmer ads and was not consulted before they ran. The university has also since edited its original press release online about the clinical trial, in which the leader of the study Prof David Paterson described the treatment as a “potential cure for all”. That statement has been removed. Paterson went on to describe it as a cure in media interviews.

In a statement, the university did not answer questions about Paterson’s use of the word cure and said “The drugs being tested are not approved for use for Covid-19, and people should not take them without advice from a doctor”.

The Royal Australia College of General Practitioners president Dr Harry Nespolon warned “hdroxychloroquine and chloroquine are not ‘cures’ for Covid-19 and they should not be used to protect patients from the virus until clinical trials are complete and the regulatory authorities have given the all clear”.

He said he supported the TGA’s move to place tight new restrictions on who can write prescriptions for the drug following widespread shortages for people who need it to treat autoimmune conditions.

Palmer’s ads may breach the TGA’s stringent drug advertising rules. A department of health spokesman told Guardian Australia that “the TGA is investigating the advertisement to determine whether it is in breach of therapeutic goods legislation and will take action in relation to any breach”.

Do you know more? melissa.davey@theguardian.com

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