FARGO — A well-established anti-malarial drug is getting attention as a possible weapon against the coronavirus, and at least one local pharmacy says it's ready and willing to help make the medication if the need arises.

The drug is called hydroxychloroquine and it's a synthetic form of quinine, a substance found in the bark of cinchona trees that has long been used to prevent and treat malaria.

The coronavirus outbreak has medical researchers hunting for ways to combat the deadly contagion. Among them is David Boulware, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota.

A story by Frederick Melo in the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper describes how Boulware recently assembled a team of U of M scientists, statisticians and pharmacologists to test his theory that hydroxychloroquine could help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"Our hypothesis is we're going to reduce the number who get sick by 50%, and hopefully more than that," Boulware told the Pioneer Press.

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Boulware's work and similar efforts are getting fast-tracked by the U.S. government, and John Deutsch, a pharmacist at the InHealth Specialty Pharmacy in Fargo, sees reason for optimism.

Deutsch said no large-scale clinical trials prove hydroxychloroquine would be effective against the coronavirus, but several small studies and anecdotal evidence point in that direction.

"We're hopeful, but nothing definitive yet," said Deutsch, who said he found it encouraging when large pharmaceutical companies recently donated millions of tablets of hydroxychloroquine to the U.S. government.

"As long as they (large drugmakers) are able to ramp up their production and get the raw ingredient, then hopefully anybody who needs it can get it at a regular retail pharmacy," Deutsch said.

"If that's not the case and we have a supply on hand and we are able to compound it, we'd be happy to help anyone out," Deutsch added.

InHealth Specialty Pharmacy, where Deutsch works, is what is known as a compounding pharmacy where medications can be put together from scratch if the active ingredients are available.

In the case of hydroxychloroquine, Deutsch said he can prepare the compound for a specific patient, but only if a doctor prescribes it and only if it is not commercially available at a retail pharmacy.

He said aside from a client who may ask for hydroxychloroquine because they are traveling to a region known for malaria, there is little demand for it, and therefore he has only a small mount of its active ingredient on hand.

While Deutsch said he's prepared to make hydroxychloroquine if the need arises and he has the ingredients to do so, not every compounding pharmacist may be as willing.

Making hydroxychloroquine is time-consuming and some pharmacists might think twice before taking on the job, according to Mike Mertens, a pharmacist with Longbella Drug in Staples, Minn.

"Every pharmacy I know works with a skeleton crew because of the low reimbursement from insurance companies. Compounds can be a hard thing to get paid for," Mertens said.

Deutsch cited no such concerns when talking about hydroxychloroquine.

"As a compounding pharmacy, we can mix up medications that are not commercially available or in short supply," he said.

If requests for hydroxychloroquine start coming in, Deutsch said they'd have to look into whether it's available at other local pharmacies before deciding whether they can fill the orders.

Deutsch said the threat from the coronavirus is challenging for everyone.

"It has affected everyone in our community and our country and really around the world," he said, adding, "The best thing we can do is remain calm and be supportive of each other, work together and practice the guidelines the CDC has put out.

"We will get through this," Deutsch added.

"There have been many other pandemics throughout history and I guess I'm just very hopeful for a good treatment option. Perhaps it's this," he said, referring to hydroxychloroquine.

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