“Order brings sameness. Chaos brings newness every moment. The problem is first overcoming our fear of chaos, and then mining for the great ideas and bringing them back home.” (anon.)
Since the start of 2020, and the dawning realisation that something was “not quite right” with the world, chaos has indeed reigned. Bringing with it fear, not only of the chaos, but also of the cause….the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID)
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the unprecedented use of a number of pharmaceutical agents not only in an attempt to find an effective treatment for the viral infection itself, but also to manage the severe and varied nature of the symptoms associated with this deadly virus.
This has resulted in an increase in the number of (often emergency) situations where drugs have been used off-label and/or resulted in cases of pregnancy exposure or lack of efficacy. From a pharmacovigilance perspective, these “special situations” must be closely monitored to ensure the emerging safety information relating to the use of drugs in such cases, is appropriately recorded and analysed so that subsequent interventions can happen to ultimately guarantee patient safety.
From our experience, the proportion of special situations identified in the literature is approximately 15% of Individual Case Safety studies (ICSRs) reported. During the first half of 2020, the proportion of special situations associated with COVID-19-related drug use has increased by a further 10%…. and this is only the beginning.
Unfortunately, while the virus has increased the number of drug safety events worldwide, it has simultaneously reduced the resource and potential to record what will become an important phase in the history of global drug safety.
This was recognised by the US FDA when it recently updated its guideline related to post-marketing adverse event reporting during a pandemic.
To ensure that safety data related to medicinal use during the COVID-19 pandemic are captured, the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has set up a designated website, and the EMA has taken a similar approach with its call to action for all patients with COVID-19 to report any adverse events relating to the use of medicinal products they may receive, since it is important to understand the potential drug interactions that patients may experience.
These data-capturing processes are essential in the current “trial and error” situation we find ourselves in. The need for close monitoring of off-label use of drugs is imperative, now more than usual, if industry is to ensure patient safety in the search for the most effective treatment in the absence of a purpose built cure.
This agile approach has been demonstrated by the FDA when it issued two Emergency Use Authorisations (EUAs) for off label use of Remdesvir and also for chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine sulfate; then, just 11 weeks later, the EUA for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine was revoked, based on on-going gathering of evidence that indicated these agents may not be effective for the treatment of COVID-19.
Use of azithromycin to protect healthcare workers from the virus was fleetingly entertained in the UK; this glimmer of hope was short lived as evidence emerged to indicate azithromycin was not effective and may have an unfavourable risk-benefit profile especially when given in combination with hydroxychloroquine. This was supported by National Institutes of Health that issued guidelines strongly recommending against the combined use of hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin, citing potential toxicities, and also against the use of HIV protease inhibitors without evidence of clinical benefit against the disease. Although disappointing, this information is important for patient safety, and in terms of pharmacovogliance the lack of efficacy observed with these and other repurposed drugs will contribute to the growing volume of valuable safety literature.
At the beginning of 2020 an increase in special situation literature safety reports began to emerge as the pandemic swept the globe and the world looked for an effective treatment for this disease. A search of the AdisInsight Safety database confirms that off-label use of lopinavir and ritonavir, alone and combination was associated with adverse events in patients located in China, Japan, Poland France Iran and the US. And pregnancy exposure, to a variety of drugs, was evident particularly in China and the US.
With the unfortunate possibility that we will experience a second wave of COVID-19 infections in countries that seem to have already conquered the disease, hopefully we can learn from the safety information generated during the initial wave and can put it to good use.
The global impact this disease has had on the use of pharmaceutical products is yet to be fully realised. I believe that the volume of safety-related literature is set to soar over the next few years as the information regarding this unique situation is processed and published.
Image: Morning Brew on Unsplash.