Clive Palmer under TGA investigation: Spruiks experimental drug, adds to dangerous hype

Clive Palmer is a poet and he knows it. Photo: Getty

Clive Palmer is a poet and he knows it. Photo: Getty Photo: Getty

Clive Palmer thought he was being a hero. Instead he’s being investigated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for making false claims about a toxic experimental drug.

On Friday, he took out two full-page newspaper ads promising to fund a million doses of hydroxychloroquine, a decades-old, rarely used drug that is used overseas as an anti-malarial, and in Australia largely to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Suddenly, he was being feted on Channel 7’s Sunrise and other media outlets.

Now, those ads have been slammed by infectious disease experts and are now central to a TGA investigation.

As reported in The New Daily, hydroxychloroquine is one of several drugs being investigated in clinical trials, including trials launched by the World Health Organisation, as an experimental treatment for Covid-19.

It is a fast-moving story, burdened by dangerous hype – and an under-reporting of the drug’s toxic side effects.

Mr Palmer has added to the hype in his ad by describing the drug as “a cure”.

In effect, he’s done a Donald Trump. The US President last week called the drug a “game changer” and wrongfully declared it had been approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

Public health officials swiftly back-pedalled these claims – because the FDA has approved off-label use of the drug only as a last-ditch measure for patients on the brink of death.

There are two trials of hydroxychloroquine underway in Australia, one of them at the University of Queensland. In his ad, Mr Palmer advises that he has donated $1 million to this trial via the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital Coronavirus Action Fund.

According to the University of Queensland’s website, Professor David Paterson “is leading a team of Queensland researchers set to begin clinical trials of a potential treatment for Covid-19”.

You can read about the trial here. It is indeed an exciting development.

In the ad, however, Mr Palmer writes: “Professor Paterson said it wasn’t a stretch to label the drugs ‘a treatment or a cure.'”

But it is a stretch – and a dangerous one.

The New Daily has written, by email, to Professor Paterson asking if his quote was taken out of context.

The University of Queensland replied with the following:  “In response to the urgent global need, the RBWH Foundation established a public fundraising appeal to raise money to start rigorous clinical trials on potential treatments.

“While some preliminary data is encouraging, there have been no large trials to determine the best treatment strategy for Covid-19, and whether any potential therapy is effective or not.

“That is the work that researchers in hospitals around Australia, including Professor Paterson at the RBWH and UQ, are seeking to do. The drugs being tested are not approved for use for Covid-19, and people should not take them without advice from a doctor.”

A spokesperson for the RBRH confirmed the foundation has received Mr Palmer’s million dollars.

Hydroxychloroquine has sparked a kind of madness, even among otherwise sensible medical professionals who are clearly panicked by the coronavirus outbreak.

As The New Daily reported, Australian doctors and dentists have been told to stop prescribing hydroxychloroquine to their families as a “just in case” strategy for Covid-19.

The Therapeutic Drug Administration this week intervened to stop the practice, bringing in new rules about who can prescribe the drug, which was linked to several deaths overseas last week.

In announcing the rules, the TGA said “these medicines 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)”.

It can also make your hair fall out.

The TGA advises: “There are no medicines that have been approved by the TGA for treatment of Covid-19, therefore prescribing of any medicine for the treatment of Covid-19 is considered off-label use.”

Further, it states: “There is currently no clear data to inform clinical guidance on the use, dosing, or duration for Covid-19 treatment.”

Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, mild systemic and discoid lupus erythematosus (an autoimmune disease), and also to suppress and treat malaria.

Mr Palmer has said he’s willing to spend up to $50 million to ensure Australia has a ready supply of hydroxychloroquine – and that he doesn’t mind blowing his cash if the trials don’t work out.

Who knows? For once, his quixotic impulses might turn out to be beneficial. But in the meantime, Mr Palmer needs to tamp down his language regarding the drug’s efficacy and, as the scientists are doing, wait and see how the trials pan out.

It’s been a roller-coaster two weeks for Mr Palmer. Ten days ago, he was looking very unhappy after failing to stay committal proceedings against him for alleged breaches of the Corporations Act.

On Friday, he was bright as a button, giving interviews to Channel Seven’s Sunrise and other media outlets about his plan to save Australia from the plague.

Now, a day after we first published this story the Department of Health 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”.

Topics: Clive Palmer
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