Courts Reject Demands to Force FDA to Approve Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19

October 1, 2020By Anne K. Walsh

Two federal courts, in unrelated cases, separately rejected plaintiffs’ attempts to force FDA to authorize the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat or prevent COVID-19.  Hydroxychloroquine, a drug that has been used for over 60 years, has been touted by President Trump as an effective treatment or preventative measure against COVID-19.  In March 2020, FDA issued a narrow Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for hydroxychloroquine, that allowed hospitalized patients diagnosed as having COVID-19 to obtain the drug from the Strategic National Stockpile if no clinical trial was available for them.  Just three months later, in June 2020, FDA revoked the EUA after it “determined that [hydroxychloroquine is] unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19.”  FDA also stated that the “ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other serious side effects” changed the risk-benefit basis for the EUA.  Neither the EUA, nor its revocation, affect physicians’ ability to prescribe commercially available hydroxychloroquine using their medical judgment.

In the Michigan case, the Association of American Physicians & Surgeons (“AAPS”) sued on behalf of its physician members who sought to prescribe the drug to their patients but claimed FDA “impeded the ability of President Trump to make [the drug] available to the public.”  AAPS claimed it had standing to sue in its own right, to sue on behalf of its members, and to sue on behalf of patients of its members.  AAPS alleged that it was injured because it had to cancel one of its conferences due to state mandates prohibiting large public gatherings; that doctors were injured because they were limited in their ability to prescribe hydroxychloroquine due to fear of retaliation by state medical boards; and that patients were injured because they were unable to receive prescriptions of hydroxychloroquine from AAPS member physicians.  Because these alleged injuries lacked causal connection to FDA’s actions, the court rejected all of plaintiff’s theories for standing and dismissed the case.

The Kansas case, brought by pro se plaintiff Peter Mario Goico, more colorfully alleged that FDA was effectively holding him and his elderly father hostage by not authorizing the “prophylaxis [sic]” use of hydroxychloroquine.  Goico claimed FDA was depriving his father and him of their First Amendment rights because they were unable to attend religious services and a political protest due to their susceptibility to COVID-19.  In denying plaintiff’s second emergency motion for TRO, the court found that plaintiff “having to take the kinds of safety precautions that many Americans have been taking for months to avoid or minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19” is not sufficient to justify the high threshold for a TRO.   FDA’s response to plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction is due on October 20, 2020.

Although both plaintiffs took issue with FDA for their inability to access hydroxychloroquine, neither appears to have a response to FDA’s position that doctors are free to prescribe the commercially available drug off-label as they see fit.  Perhaps the risk-benefit analysis FDA conducted in revoking the EUA is persuasive, but FDA generally declines to impede the practice of medicine, as it recently reaffirmed:  “FDA generally does not seek to interfere with the exercise of the professional judgment of health care providers in prescribing or using, for unapproved uses for individual patients, most legally marketed medical products.”  FDA, Proposed Rule: Regulations re “Intended Use,” fn. 3.