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Senate Minority Whip Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Pennacchio wants N.J. to add drugs currently being tested to help curb spread of COVID-19

Senator largely follows Trump’s line on untested COVID-19 treatment

By Nikita Biryukov, March 24 2020 5:16 pm

Senate Minority Whip Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) wants New Jersey to add drugs under testing for the treatment and prevention of the novel coronavirus as part of its response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The senator, who is co-chairing President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in New Jersey, wants public health officials to adopt hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), a malaria drug, in addition to the mitigation measures already being used.

“We have a good sense that this drug works. We are living in a state that has major manufacturers of the drug. As a matter of fact, they’re giving it out for free right now, Bayer and Novartis and Pfizer,” Pennacchio said. “We should formulate a public health policy to see if we can ramp up the production of these drugs.”

Early trials have indicated HCQ may be able a valid treatment for COVID-19, though Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has called those trials unreliable.

“Many of the things out there are what I have called ‘anecdotal reports,'” Fauci said at at a press briefing on Sunday. “The information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal. It was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”

Pennacchio cited a French study that suggested HCQ may combat COVID-19 when administered in concert with the antibiotic Azithromycin, though the trial applied the combined treatment to a tiny sample of six people.

Further, that study was not randomized and did not report clinical outcomes — like recover or death — and based its findings solely on viral load, or amount of a virus present in the body.

Trump has touted HCQ as a treatment for the novel coronavirus and has specifically pointed to the Azithromycin study.

The senator, an honorary chair of Trump’s New Jersey re-election campaign, said his support for HCQ treatment predated the president’s, adding that he believed health officials were coming to his side.

“Now two weeks ago, everyone said that the president and a number of us who were talking about this were crazy,” Pennacchio said. “Now I think we’ve gone beyond that. Now they’re sort of accepting it with a skeptical eye, hedging their bets because this is something out of the box that hasn’t been tried before.”

The World Health Organization and New York state are conducting HCQ and chloroquine, a more toxic version of the same drug, treatment trials, the latter with the aid from the Food and Drug Administration.

In part, officials are concerned about the side effects of HCQ, which can include death and are more severe for persons with heart disease.

COVID-19 often manifests more severely in those with heart conditions.

In part, Trump has repeatedly touted HCQ and other potential treatments out of a stated desire to move past state orders to shelter in place and shutter businesses that have erased all of the economic gains made under his first term.

On Tuesday, Trump said he hoped to see mitigation measures imposed in response to COVID by April, a timeline that health and state officials say is likely not realistic.

“I understand given the enormity of the impact on the economy, I can understand folks who want to find as fast and as short a way — a road back to normalcy — as possible,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “I get that completely, but we got to do it responsibly, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting otherwise. But we’re not there yet, and we’re going to stay the course because we believe we are basing our actions with the fact and science associated with the spread of this virus.”

Murphy and New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli have pushed social distancing measures in an effort to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 to prevent severe cases from overloading the state’s hospitals.

Pennacchio isn’t in disagreement there, though he would like to see the untested COVID treatments added to the state’s response.

“I’m not criticizing her, and I’m not criticizing the statement, but I’m saying that it’s not either or. I know what she wants to do. She wants to basically share the pain over a longer period of time, so that way it doesn’t overwhelm the healthcare system,” he said. “But what these doctors are saying, and what the science may be pointing to — and we can’t let this go — is eventually you can have both.”

Though, his stance there isn’t completely different from Trump’s.

The senator is hoping that HCQ or other drugs will shorten the time horizon on social distancing and stay at home measures.

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