East Texas legislator at forefront of national effort to distribute disputed COVID-19 treatment

TYLER, Texas — President Donald Trump has touted a long-used malaria pill as a possible treatment for COVID-19. However, the person most responsible for getting it into the hands of doctors in Texas and around the country might just be a legislator from Wood County.

State Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) has become a central figure in the debate about hydroxychloroquine.

“The folks at Amneal (Pharmaceuticals) had read about, maybe, price gouging and shortages, and they were concerned about that,” Sen. Hughes recalled Wednesday, “because they want the drugs to be available to folks who need them.”

KVUE News

Hughes’ law firm happened to work with Amneal, so he helped connect the company with emergency response and health care leaders in Texas. 

“A million doses of hydroxychloroquine were donated to the state of Texas by Amneal Pharmaceuticals,” Hughes explained. “No expectation, no strings, they just want it to be available to folks who need it.”

Those doses have all arrived in Texas, and Hughes said the state has distributed them to more than 60 hospitals covering every part of the state. He says that Dr. Julie Philley, a pulmonologist at UT Health East Texas, is one of the doctors using it to treat patients.

“And she’s been using that for serious cases for a few weeks now,” Hughes said. “So, many of our hospitals in East Texas already had some, and they’re using that. But, others, again, are already getting some more from this donation that came from the state.”

Hydroxychloroquine has been around since the 1940s, and the Food and Drug Administration approved it for the treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Trials are currently underway to determine if it is effective at treating or preventing COVID-19. 

While some doctors have said it helped their patients, others are skeptical. Doctors may, at their own discretion, prescribe a medication for an off-label use, and Hughes wants to give them that option.

“No one is trying to encourage doctors to prescribe this,” Hughes explained. “It’s up to the doctor. But more and more doctors are saying, ‘We want this for our COVID-19 patients.’”

Hydroxychloroquine got closer attention when Hughes helped deliver it to The Resort at Texas City, a nursing home that experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 among its residents and staff. Dr. Robin Armstrong, the facility’s medical director, asked Hughes for help procuring the drug.

“He explained, these are elderly folks that are at risk and they need help,” Hughes recalled. “He wants to keep them out of the hospital, if he can, and keep them off of ventilators, because that seems to be when folks often take a turn.”

Since then, Hughes has worked with several states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan and Mississippi to make hydroxychloroquine available. He acknowledged that it will be a long time before detailed scientific studies are completed, but thinks the early, anecdotal evidence is promising. Hughes says he embraces his new role as a nationwide facilitator.

“We’re working with states left and right, blue and red, that doesn’t matter,” Hughes said. “COVID-19 doesn’t care about your politics. We want to make sure that everybody who needs it, every doctor who needs it, has access to this for their patients all across the country.”

Critics of promoting hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment argue that a sudden increase in demand might mean the drug would be unavailable or unaffordable for the patients with lupus, malaria, and rheumatoid arthritis who already depend on it.

Hughes argued Amneal’s donations have the opposite effect. 

“They had a pretty good store,” Hughes said. “And so their thinking is: Let’s get ours out there, let’s give this away, put it to those states who need it while we hope--now that production is ramping up by these other manufacturers—theirs will come in in the next wave and make sure we have enough.”

For more information on the coronavirus, text "FACTS" to (903) 600-2600.

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