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Health expert warns against antacid meds as COVID-19 treatment

Updated April 30, 2020 - 6:53 pm

Certain over-the-counter antacid medications appear harder to find than usual in the Las Vegas Valley after reports this week of a clinical trial in New York using the medicine to treat COVID-19.

But a local public health expert on Thursday advised against using the drug to treat the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Famotidine, the active ingredient in the popular heartburn medication Pepcid, is being used in a clinical trial treating at least 187 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in the New York City area. The trial, which began April 7, appeared to be first reported Sunday by Science magazine.

Those in charge of the trial emphasized to national media that it would take weeks to know if the compound being studied is effective in treating COVID-19.

Brian Labus, an assistant professor at UNLV’s School of Public Health, cautioned against taking Pepcid as a treatment.

“There is zero evidence that it works,” said Labus, who serves on Gov. Steve Sisolak’s medical advisory team.

He said the clinical trial in New York, a first step in evaluating the compound, was launched after observations of patients in China.

“We’re looking at lots of different compounds to see if they have an effect on coronavirus, and this is just one of those compounds,” Labus said.

Taking the heartburn drug in a manner for which it’s not prescribed could be harmful, he said. “As with any medication, it’s not completely benign.”

He said taking the drug to counter the effects of the coronavirus is “not anything that anybody is recommending at this time.”

Regardless, people seem to be stocking up on heartburn medication in addition to pantry essentials and toilet paper. Amazon’s website on Thursday indicated that one kind of Pepcid chewable tablet wouldn’t be in stock until May 15, while other versions of famotidine were listed as unavailable.

It’s unclear if the apparent shortage is due to news of the trial or the now-normal pandemic buying. No stores visited by Review-Journal staff on Thursday — including Walmart, Smith’s, Albertsons, Walgreens and CVS locations — were out of Pepcid or famotidine, but several appeared to have low stock.

There have been similar shortages of other medications and first aid supplies at stores during the pandemic.

CVS spokeswoman Amy Thibault said in an emailed statement that the shortage of famotidine was due to the pandemic and a recent recall of over-the-counter versions of ranitidine, which is also used to treat heartburn.

“We are working aggressively with our suppliers to meet the demand,” Thibault said.

Representatives of Walgreens and Target on Thursday also acknowledged shortages when asked about their famotidine supply. Albertsons declined to comment, while representatives of Walmart, Costco and Smith’s did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Mary Hynes contributed to this report.

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