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Article Date21-08-2020
Record TYPENews
Article TOPICDU/Metals/Chem
Article TitleABC Far North Ex-soldiers say potential COVID-19 drug triggered depression, memory loss
Article ContentABC Far North Ex-soldiers say potential COVID-19 drug triggered depression, memory loss

ABC Far North / By Marian Faa
Posted ThuThursday 13 AugAugust 2020 at 2:28pm, updated ThuThursday 13 AugAugust 2020 at 9:07pm

VVi 05 Sep 2020 db

Glen Norton blames the anti-malaria drug he was given in the military for his health issues.(ABC Far North: Marian Faa)

Australian Army veterans given a controversial drug while deployed in East Timor have raised concerns about its safety, saying the medicine should not be used as a treatment for COVID-19.

Key points:
An anti-malaria drug has shown early signs as a potential treatment for COVID-19 in laboratory studies
Army veterans given the drug 20 years ago say it caused them long-term psychiatric side effects
A Senate inquiry found there was no compelling evidence of lasting health problems but experts recommend more research

The anti-malarial tafenoquine is being explored as a treatment for coronavirus with laboratory studies conducted in Melbourne claiming tafenoquine was four times more potent against SARS-CoV-2 cells than hydroxychloroquine.

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed but drug company 60 Degrees Pharmaceuticals (60P) is planning to conduct clinical research to determine its effectiveness in humans.

Chief executive Geoff Dow said the company was optimistic about the initiative.

Glen Norton says he was a "happy and keen" young soldier before taking a controversial anti-malaria drug.(ABC: Supplied)

"Like many companies, 60P and its partners are trying to do our part to provide solutions for treating and preventing COVID 19," he said.

But some doctors and veterans have raised serious concerns about tafenoquine's safety.

Glen Norton is one of almost 700 soldiers who took the anti-malarial during trials conducted by the Defence Force between 1998 and 2002.

Two decades later, Mr Norton continues to suffer chronic depression, anxiety, nightmares, hallucinations, memory loss and extreme mood swings.

He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but believes his symptoms are long-term side effects from taking tafenoquine.

"One minute I would be happy, and the next minute I would be curled up in the corner somewhere crying," he said.

"This drug has totally destroyed my personal life."

'We were having nightmares'

Mr Norton said he first began noticing changes when he took tafenoquine while deployed in East Timor in 2000.

"We used to call Sunday nights psycho night because of the side effects," he said.

"All of us that were on those drugs were having nightmares and things like that we had people literally screaming in their sleep like they're being murdered."

Two young men with faces painted in camoflage in the bush.

Glen Norton says he began having nightmares while taking the anti-malarial on a peace keeping mission in East Timor.(ABC: Supplied)

Mr Norton is no longer in the Army and owns businesses in Cairns and Darwin.

He said he was horrified to hear tafenoquine was being considered as a treatment for coronavirus.

"I would prefer to catch COVID-19 and take the risk than to let anyone go through the pain and suffering myself and other soldiers have experienced."

Doctors debate drug's safety

Tafenoquine was approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for use as a malaria prevention drug in 2018.

Side effects listed in the product information include sleep disturbances, depression and anxiety in up to 1 per cent of cases.

Dr Dow said clinical studies of tafenoquine had been reviewed by independent medical experts, who concluded the drug was safe.

But some doctors have warned the drug's long-term risks may not be fully understood.

American epidemiologist Remington Nevin said tafenoquine belonged to a class of anti-malaria medications shown to be neurotoxic.

"I am afraid we're seeing the same thing potentially playing out with tafenoquine," Dr Nevin said.

"Our group's concern is that there is simply incomplete study data on these drugs."

Hydroxychloroquine tablets are displayed on a dark surface
Tafenoquine belongs to the same family of drugs as hydroxychloroquine, also developed to treat malaria.(AP: John Locher)

Dr Nevin believes there were critical flaws in the study conducted on Australian soldiers, who were deployed on peacekeeping missions at the time.

"When symptoms develop in this environment, it's very tempting to attribute these and possibly misattribute these simply to the stresses of deployment and not to the drugs," he said.

"I'm also concerned about the ethics of the trials that have been conducted and the quality of clinical data that have been collected from these studies."

Others have argued the drug is safe.

University of Queensland anti-malaria expert James McCarthy gave evidence to a Senate inquiry into the use of tafenoquine in the Defence Force in 2018.

Professor McCarthy told the inquiry tafenoquine had never been associated with neuropsychiatric side effects at normal doses for preventing malaria.

"Comprehensive reviews of multiple clinical trials suggest that the incidence of neurological side effects was no higher in those receiving tafenoquine compared with a placebo," he said.

Large-scale study underway

A 2018 review by the US Food and Drug Administration found there was enough evidence to conclude tafenoquine was safe.

However, it also flagged concerns about the drug's potential neuropsychiatric side effects and recommended further research.

Some members of the review committee said safety data from clinical studies were small and the noted follow-up periods were short.

A scientist looks into a microscope while wearing a protective suit at the CSIRO Australia Animal Health Laboratory.
Researchers are looking into tafenoquine as a COVID-19 treatment.(Supplied: CSIRO)

Dr Dow said a large-scale study into the psychiatric safety of tafenoquine had been underway since 2017, with results expected in the second half of next year.

Mr Norton said clinical trials of tafenoquine against COVID-19 should not take place until further research was completed.

"How can you conduct a trial and say that this drug is safe, it's all singing, it's all dancing, when you're not looking at the long-term effects of what these drugs do to the human body?" he said.

'Some days I would have killed someone'

Veterans are calling for a royal commission into drug trials conducted by the military's Malaria and Infectious Diseases Institute, amid allegations of corruption and ethics breaches.

Wayne Karakyriacos, who also took tafenoquine while deployed in East Timor, said soldiers did not give informed consent to participate in the trials.

"We got told if you did not sign the paperwork, you would not deploy," he said.

"To me, this is not about financial gain it's about justice and the truth, and how the [Military's] Australian Malaria Institute could use Australian soldiers as guinea pigs."

Ex-soldier Glen Norton says there's been no research into the long-term side effects suffered by veterans who took the controversial anti-malaria drug while deployed in East Timor and Bougainville.(ABC Far North: Marian Faa)

The 2018 Senate inquiry heard evidence from more than a dozen soldiers, veterans and their relatives who said tafenoquine had a major detrimental impact on their lives.

"Some days I had to leave as I would have actually killed someone with no regret at all. The anxiety and anger was uncontrollable. This was not the life I wanted to live," one submission read.

A Defence spokeswoman said the inquiry found the trials were conducted ethically and lawfully, in keeping with national guidelines.

She said the Commonwealth had committed $2.1 million to support veterans concerned about having taken tafenoquine and other anti-malaria drugs.

"DVA is delivering a national program that provides concerned veterans with the option to receive a comprehensive health assessment to identify service-related illness, disease and injury," she said.

"These health assessments will be conducted by GPs trained to address medical issues specific to veterans and anti-malarial medications."

The spokeswoman said Defence had agreed to 12 of the inquiry's 14 recommendations and agreed in principle to the remaining two.
Eval SOURCE RELIABILITYC - Fairly Reliable
Eval INFO CREDIBILITY2 - Probably True
SourceABC Australia
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