Henry Ford starts drug study; Detroit hits almost 3,000 COVID-19 cases, nearly 100 deaths

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Henry Ford Health System is heading up the first large-scale study in the country to find out if a drug commonly used to treat lupus can prevent COVID-19.

Doctors from the Detroit-based health system joined Thursday with Mayor Mike Duggan to make the announcement on a clinical trial planned for hydroxychloroquine and put out a call to first responders to volunteer. Consideration of the study has been underway for about 10 days, officials said. 

The five-hospital system is close to getting Food and Drug Administration approval and is going to start enrolling participants next week, officials said.

"In a matter of four to eight weeks, we will have a really good idea of whether this works," Duggan said. "We will be fighting coronavirus for months to come. We need tools to fight back."

The trial would recruit 3,000 volunteers and include a blood test and would require participants to take a once-a-day dose, once-a-week dose or a placebo of the pill over eight weeks. 

"We're looking for first responders and health care workers who, if the study works out, will save the lives of first responders around the world," the mayor added. 

No proven cures or preventative treatments exist for the virus.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydroxychloroquine is an FDA-approved arthritis medicine that also can be used to prevent or treat malaria. It is available in the United States by prescription only. 

The study medication was specially procured for this study and will not impact the supply of medication for people who already take the medication for other conditions, officials noted. 

Dr. Adnan Munkarah, Henry Ford Health System's executive vice president and chief clinical officer, said first responders and health care workers "are really in harm's way" as some have tested positive for COVID-19 and others are hospitalized.

"We want to save people who are exposed," Munkarah said during the press briefing at Detroit's Eastern Market. 

Officials with Michigan Medicine said Thursday that they reducing use of the drug for its cases. 

“We haven’t seen any clear evidence of benefit so we aren’t going to use hydroxychloroquine routinely anymore. We were initially recommending it to both inpatients and outpatients, but we’re no longer doing that routinely," said Vineet Chopra, Michigan Medicine’s chief of hospital medicine, in a Thursday blog post.

"That’s based upon the fact that we’ve been prescribing hydroxychloroquine for a few weeks, did not see therapeutic benefit but did see adverse effects.”

Those side effects Chopra noted, include liver function toxicity, nausea and vomiting. Use of the drug could also exclude a patient from COVID-19-related clinical trials. 

Many area hospitals are treating patients with hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment they hope will lessen the severity of COVID-19 in some patients.

The FDA in late February issued an emergency use authorization for the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine for treatment of SARS-CoV-2, another name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

The decades-old malaria drugs have been championed by President Donald Trump for COVID-19 treatment to the consternation of some medical experts because little evidence is available on their safety or effectiveness. 

In Detroit, there are nearly 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID- 19 and is nearing 100 deaths, Thursday figures from the city's health office show. 

Detroit's Health Department is now reporting 2,860 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 97 fatalities. That's 377 more positive cases than were reported on Wednesday and 15 more deaths. 

City officials have said Detroit will continue to see its cases rise due to its aggressive testing.

People dressed in personal protective equipment talk to motorists at a drive-up COVID-19 testing site at the Wayne State University Physicians Group on Mack Ave. in Detroit, Saturday, March 21, 2020.

The city, meanwhile, is among the first in the country to receive rapid-result testing kits from Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories.

Five testing machines and 5,000 kits that provide results within 15 minutes arrived in the city Wednesday and should soon be up and running to test police, firefighters, EMTs and bus drivers. Detroit hopes to begin that testing Thursday evening, Duggan said. 

Separately, the mayor said he expects that a regional site established at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds will conduct at least 14,000 tests for COVID-19 over the next six weeks. 

With adequate supplies, the city hopes it can ramp up to 1,000 tests being conducted daily at the site. 

Detroit's Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair said Thursday that "no one is immune" to the virus that's impacting people throughout the city.

"The next several weeks are going to be challenging," Fair said. "I can tell you without a doubt, it's going to get worse before it gets better."

The state on Wednesday reported 9,334 confirmed coronavirus cases overall and 337 total deaths.