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NJ Man’s Battle with COVID-19 Led Him to Experimental Drug

A South Jersey man got a drug called hydroxychloroquine through connections in Taiwan. It has shown potential for treating patients affected by coronaviruses, but its success is still inconclusive, according to experts

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Randy Chen didn't know how much longer he had.

He struggled to breathe, couldn't sleep and none of the normal medicines for influenza or the common cold were working.

Chen, 50, of Marlton, New Jersey, had COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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"My chest would shake violently by itself," he told NBC10 of his attempts to breathe and sleep over the last three weeks. "It felt like somebody (took) a hammer and pounded on my chest."

With Chen quarantined to the basement of his South Jersey house, his wife would drop his meals off at the top of the stairs, although he ate little.

"My wife thought I was dropping dead at any second," Chen said in an interview Tuesday.

He was initially tested on March 16 and told he was infected with the coronavirus on March 19. As the days went by and the suffering continued, he started looking for more help.

Chen heard about a drug called hydroxychloroquine through a family member who is a doctor in Philadelphia. It is prescribed as Plaquenil, which commonly treats arthritis in the United States and malaria in tropical countries. But it has also shown potential for treating coronaviruses.

Chen talked with friends and family in Taiwan and was able to get someone to ship him some doses of hydroxychloroquine, which he then took for a week after consulting with his doctor.

"All he said was, 'Take it, but you know I'm not responsible. I didn't prescribe it,'" Chen recalled of the conversation with his doctor.

Hydroxychloroquine has long been known to prevent and treat malaria. It is also prescribed to treat chronic diseases like arthritis. Some studies also showed its potential for minimizing the effects of coronaviruses.

Still, no clinical tests or studies have proven that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19 or any other influenza strains, according to experts.

The drug first gained some national prominence in a tweet by President Trump in mid-March.

"Data to support the use of HCQ and CQ for COVID-19 are limited and inconclusive," according to an article published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine. "The drugs have some in vitro activity against several viruses, including coronaviruses and influenza, but previous randomized trials in patients with influenza have been negative."

New clinical studies are underway but results aren't expected for at least a few months.

Despite the inconclusive evidence, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization this weekend "to allow hydroxychloroquine sulfate and chloroquine phosphate products ... to be distributed and prescribed by doctors to hospitalized teen and adult patients with COVID-19, as appropriate."

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA, announced on March 29 that it received 31 million doses of hydroxychloroquine sulfate in donations from two pharmaceutical companies. That will allow for expanded clinical testing and trials and ease the growing strain on the market for the drug, the FDA said.

"Hydroxychloroquine sulfate and chloroquine phosphate are oral prescription drugs approved to treat malaria and other diseases. Although there are no currently approved treatments for COVID-19, both drugs have shown activity in laboratory studies against coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19)," the federal department said in a press release. "Anecdotal reports suggest that these drugs may offer some benefit in the treatment of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Clinical trials are needed to provide scientific evidence that these treatments are effective."

Chen, while trying to beat back the coronavirus infection in his Marlton basement, began taking the hydroxychloroquine he received from Taiwan on March 24. For six days, he took a dose three times a day. On Sunday, he took the last dose.

He feels like it helped him recover.

"I know I wouldn't have rebounded that fast," Chen said. He told an NBC10 reporter on Tuesday that he was feeling about a seven out of 10. For awhile there, he said, he was feeling like a one.

Still, he admits, the sample size is small.

"I know how I feel," he said. "I only have a study of one."

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