COVID-19 Updates

COVID-19 side effect: critical drugs in short supply

Alicia Lasek

Among the many troubles brought by the new coronavirus, key drugs have become hot commodities – and stocks are running low.

Demand has skyrocketed for drugs ranging from asthma inhalers and antibiotics to sedatives needed for mechanical ventilation. Physicians, patient advocates and manufacturers are struggling to ensure adequate access for traditional users and coronavirus patients alike.

Medications necessary to safely ventilate patients are the latest to land on the drug shortages list. These include neuromuscular blockers, sedatives such as fentanyl, midazolam, and propofol, and vasopressors for septic shock, Medscape reported Thursday. Hospital order fulfillment rates for these drugs have dropped as low as 60% and continue to fall up to 3% per day, one pharmacist told the news outlet.

Hospitals are also increasingly using albuterol to help open airways in COVID-19 patients. A recent announcement regarding shortages has increased anxiety among asthma sufferers who use the drug as a rescue inhaler, according to an immunologist’s organization.

Hydroxychloroquine is yet another case in point. The medication, normally used to treat autoimmune disease and malaria, is now being used off-label in the hopes that it will counter the coronavirus in very ill patients. Last week it was added to the Food and Drug Administration’s drug shortages list due to a surge in demand, the agency said. While the FDA has taken steps to encourage donations of hydroxychloroquine to the national stockpile and stepped-up manufacturing, supplies continue to run low.

Meanwhile, orders for antibiotics including azithromycin (used together with hydroxychloroquine), and antiviral medicines like ribavirin, nearly tripled in March due to hospital demand, according to the New York Times.

Even everyday over-the-counter medical supplies have disappeared off retail shelves. Demand has shot up for rubbing alcohol, cotton swabs and wipes, making it difficult for people with diabetes to find what they need to disinfect skin for insulin injections, reports Kaiser Health News. The reason? Health officials have touted isopropyl alcohol as a key ingredient in homemade hand sanitizer and as a home disinfectant.

In all cases, manufacturers have said they are attempting to ramp up production.