Hydroxychloroquine Imports Spike in Australia, As Billionaire Accused of Touting Drug As 'Cure'

Australian border officials have seized tens of thousands of tablets of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, the anti-malaria drugs falsely thought to treat COVID-19. The Australian Border Force has warned residents against attempting to illegally acquire drugs they mistakenly believe could treat the disease, with a state leader separately accusing a mining magnate of attempting to promote the snake oil medicine for COVID-19.

Between January 1 and 21 June, the Australian Border Force stopped more than 26,000 tablets from being illegally imported into the country. The agency warned Australians on Monday against importing banned substances they believe may work against COVID-19.

The Australian Border Force also noted a spike in attempts to bring in the herbal remedy ephedra. Only two kilograms were found by staff in the first three months of the year, but that spiked to 66 kilograms in April and May. The traditional Chinese medicine is falsely marketed as a treatment for COVID-19, and is banned due to its use in making the illegal drug methamphetamine.

Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration regulatory body said ephedra has been linked to health problems including high blood pressure, heart attacks, muscle disorders, seizures, strokes and death. When incorrectly used, hydroxychloroquine has been associated with sudden heart attacks, irreversible eye damage and low blood sugar that has the potential to lead to a coma. It should only be used by those to which it is prescribed for malaria and auto-immune disorders, the body said.

Australian Border Force Assistant Commissioner Erin Dale said in a statement: "There are serious health risks associated with taking medication that has not been prescribed for you by a medical health professional. It is illegal to bring these substances into Australia without the proper permits and I strongly urge Australians against importing these items."

The Australian Border Force made the statement the day West Australia's Premier Mark McGowan accused billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer of trying to enter the state, despite restrictions on movement, to promote hydroxychloroquine after his philanthropic organization bought 32 million doses of the drug in April.

Palmer told Sky News Australia at the time: "[There is] no doubt in my mind hydroxychloroquine is very effective."

People are banned from entering Western Australia unless they meet certain exemption requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Palmer's request was denied, prompting him to launch a legal challenge that triggered a hearing in the Federal Court.

Palmer claimed he wanted to enter the state for a meeting with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and to deal with business interests.

McGowan told reporters on Monday: "He wanted to come to Western Australia to promote hydroxychloroquine to the people of the state as some sort of cure for COVID." He said he was pleased the WA Police rejected Palmer.

"He's accepted the Donald Trump view of hydroxychloroquine, which no one with a medical degree as far as I'm aware accepts," McGowan said.

Newsweek has contacted Queensland Nickel Sales Pty Ltd, which is owned by Palmer, for comment.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted the drug as a COVID-19 treatment, despite evidence to the contrary.

On Wednesday, he told reporters: "I happen to be a believer in hydroxy. I used it. I had no problem. I happen to be a believer. Many, many people agree with me." He cited a study that has since drawn criticism for its design.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was hope the anti-malarial drug could treat COVID-19 after it was shown in a lab to stop the coronavirus from replicating in cells. However, randomized clinical trials—the gold standard for testing if drugs work—have not found that the drug can either prevent people from catching the coronavirus or treat COVID-19.

Last week, two members of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Anthony Fauciand Dr. Deborah Birx, said scientific evidence does not support claims that hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19.

And on Sunday, Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services and a medical doctor, echoed their concerns on NBC News' Meet the Press.

"There's no evidence to show that it is [effective against COVID-19]," he said. "Right now, hydroxychloroquine, I can't recommend that."

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A hydroxychloroquine pill is displayed on March 26, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. John Phillips/Getty Images