Lupus sufferers pleaded for hydroxychloroquine before Clive Palmer’s doses were destroyed | Clive Palmer

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Lupus sufferers pleaded for more supplies of hydroxychloroquine two months before the federal government told billionaire Clive Palmer it didn’t want more of the 33m doses he wanted to donate as a potential Covid-19 treatment.

One tonne of Palmer’s hydroxychloroquine – equivalent to 5m doses – was destroyed after it was left unclaimed in Melbourne due to a lengthy standoff with the commonwealth, Guardian Australia revealed on Wednesday.

When Palmer first promised to donate 33m doses of hydroxychloroquine to Australia, there was some optimism – since disproven – that it could be used as a treatment for Covid-19.

The fervour around hydroxychloroquine’s potential value in treating coronavirus led to the hoarding of the drug and put significant pressure on supplies for other patient groups – sufferers of malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, among others – who have a legitimate need for it.

The pressure on supplies was so significant that Lupus Australia wrote to the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, on 25 March last year, expressing concerns that patients were unable to fill their prescriptions, due to major shortages.

Hunt responded to the letter and outlined the steps taken by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to ensure continued supply for those who needed hydroxychloroquine, including lupus sufferers.

Lupus Australia president, Barbara Ward, said hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine were critical drugs for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, particularly where “a patient’s symptoms do not respond to other treatments”.

“For patients with lupus, hydroxychloroquine is the only medication shown to increase survival. Hydroxychloroquine is the cornerstone of therapy, used in most patients unless a contraindication exists.”

The commonwealth took 22m doses from Palmer in the two months after the Lupus Australia letter. All of them are still sitting in the national medical stockpile and have not been used, either for Covid-19 or to help address any hydroxychloroquine shortage.

The health department then told Palmer in late May, amid mounting evidence against its use as a Covid-19 treatment, that further supplies of “hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine products are not required at this stage”.

A further shipment of 5m doses arrived in August, but neither Palmer nor the commonwealth wanted to take possession of it. The supplies sat unclaimed in Melbourne.

The Palmer Foundation told the head of the TGA, Prof John Skerritt, it had “no ownership or interest in the property (it is the property of the commonwealth) [and] we expect your office … to facilitate the product being placed on the national stockpile”.

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The TGA replied to Palmer, saying it was unable to take possession of the shipment, given it had previously told the billionaire it didn’t want any more hydroxychloroquine.

Guardian Australia understands the shipment was sent for destruction in April, eight months later.

There’s no suggestion Palmer directed the drugs be destroyed. He told Guardian Australia in a text: “All [hydroxychloroquine] was donated t[o] the Commonwealth prior to its shipment to Australia, you need to check with them on knowledge of other matters.”

The health department said it did not take the shipment into the stockpile. It also has no knowledge of what happened to it.

There is no current shortage of hydroxychloroquine because the pressures seen early in the pandemic eased when evidence failed to establish it was a useful treatment for Covid-19.

“Despite some short disruptions, supply of hydroxychloroquine to patients in Australia has remained strong and we will continue to take steps, if required, to ensure it remains so,” a health department spokesperson said.

The department said three brands of hydroxychloroquine are approved for use in Australia and that it had not been notified of any supply issues.

“The Department of Health closely monitors the supply of Australian registered hydroxychloroquine products and companies supplying hydroxychloroquine have not notified the TGA of any shortfall in supply for the treatment of approved indications,” a spokesperson said.

Lupus Australia is now hoping to have another US Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment for Lupus, Saphnelo, to be permitted for use in Australia.

Ward described the drug as “modern and groundbreaking” and said it would have an “amazing impact” on the quality of life of sufferers.


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