Chloroquine helped Wilton man, but not a ‘magic bullet’

Chris Tillett with his 5-month-old twin sons before he contracted the coronavirus.

Chris Tillett with his 5-month-old twin sons before he contracted the coronavirus.

Elyssia Poland Photography

WILTON — The inspirational story of Chris Tillett, the father of twin infant sons who is recovering after being in a medically induced coma for 10 days due to the coronavirus, has put a spotlight on a controversial medication.

Tillett, 45, said doctors at Danbury Hospital, where he was treated, tried several different drug protocols to treat the contagious respiratory illness that ravaged his body and left him with bilateral pneumonia. The one that worked for him was a combination of the malaria drug chloroquine and the HIV anti-viral drug Kaletra.

However, Tillett, who was Connecticut’s first resident to test positive for COVID-19, is quick to point out that everyone is unique, and the medications used on him are not a universal cure-all.

It worked for me, but it might not work for everyone,” he told Hearst Connecticut Media.

READ MORE: ‘I’m alive’: CT’s first coronavirus patient out of coma, on long road to recovery

Still, due to its use in this and other cases, some have latched onto chloroquine as a potential “cure” for COVID-19. On Saturday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization to allow hydroxychloroquine sulfate and chloroquine phosphate products to be used for certain patients with COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine is a derivative of chloroquine, and has also been used to treat the virus.

Both drugs are produced by multiple companies. On Sunday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services accepted 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine sulfate donated by Sandoz, the Novartis generics and biosimilars division, and 1 million doses of chloroquine phosphate donated by Bayer Pharmaceuticals.

President Donald Trump has even praised the medication, tweeting on March 21 that “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”

Meanwhile, Tillett’s wife, Elizabeth, said she’s received multiple requests via email and social media wanting to know how her husband was treated.

“I’ve tried to respond to every single one either through a message, email, or phone call,” she said. “I want people to know what worked for him, and hope either his protocol or something else will be equally as effective for them or their loved one.”

Elizabeth Tillett has been an integral part of her husband’s care, and was consulted each time doctors tried a new medicine. Several drug treatments were tried, she said, adding that her husband was on Kaletra from day one, and was also given the medication Lasix to remove fluid from his lungs.

She said even when he received the chloroquine, “there was not an immediate noticeable response.” In fact, by the time her husband started to recover, Elizabeth Tillett said he was about to be switched to another drug, the Ebola medicine Remdesivir.

“There was no anecdotal magic bullet,” said Elizabeth Tillett, who is also a nurse. “I think the supportive care that allowed his body to fight the virus could have very well been what helped him overcome COVID-19. There are no control groups of people getting nothing so it’s hard to say.”

Indeed, some experts caution against seeing chloroquine — which is used to treat not just malaria but also symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and other illnesses — as a miracle cure. The medication has potential drawbacks, and can cause major cardiac issues, said Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven. It also can have serious drug interactions with some antidepressants.

The drug’s benefits and risks as a COVID-19 treatment also have not been fully researched, McGee said.

“People should know that it hasn’t been well studied and we don’t yet know if it is effective,” she said. “There is no reason to ask your doctor to order this prescription for you or for people to stockpile the drug.”Some reports have surfaced of doctors hoarding the drug, and one Arizona man died after taking a form of chloroquine phosphate used to clean fish tanks, in hopes of avoiding the virus. His wife also became ill after taking the chemical.

The incident caused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a statement warning against non-prescription use of chloroquine.

“Chloroquine phosphate, when used without a prescription and supervision of a health care provider, can cause serious health consequences, including death,” the statement read. “Clinicians and public health officials should discourage the public from misusing non-pharmaceutical chloroquine phosphate (a chemical used in home aquariums).”

It’s unclear how widely used the drug is being prescribed in Connecticut to treat COVID-19.

Amy Forni, a spokeswoman for Nuvance Health — which includes Danbury Hospital — declined to comment specifically about how often chloroquine is used in COVID-19 treatment, but said clinical teams at the health system “are looking into and utilizing different treatment options for COVID-19 patients that are aligned with the latest research and guidelines from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and other expert organizations.”

Other hospitals were more specific about the use of chloroquine to treat the coronavirus. Bridgeport Hospital Chief of Infectious Disease Dr. Zane Saul said the hospital’s first line of treatment for viral patients who need it is a cocktail of an HIV medication and hydroxychloroquine.

However, Saul conceded that there are some concerns about the medication. For one thing, it does carry side effects, particular on the gastrointestinal tract. But Saul’s main concern is that overusing the medication to treat COVID-19 will not allow patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other conditions treatable with the medication to get it.

Bridgeport Hospital is part of the Yale New Haven Health System, and hydroxychloroquine is part of the protocol for COVID-19 treatment at all the hospitals.

Dr. Naftali Kaminski, a pulmonary disease specialist at the Yale School of Medicine, said hydroxychloroquine’s side effects also include “eye toxicity and heart arrhythmia,” which means it is not likely to be given broadly in the community.

“Unless we had really good data that everybody is really protected, I would strongly advise against taking it,” he said.

McGee echoed the reservations of both doctors.

“These medications are also used for chronically ill patients who now cannot get their necessary treatments,” she said. “Everyone needs to calm down and wait for the evidence to come in.”

Staff writer Ed Stannard contributed to this report.