Tycoon imported 1,118kg of the drug before Therapeutic Goods Administration decided it would not be used to treat Covid
Five million doses of hydroxychloroquine imported by Clive Palmer were sent for destruction after a standoff with the commonwealth over who should take responsibility for a shipment sitting unclaimed in Melbourne airport.
Last year Palmer promised to donate 32.9m doses of the antimalarial drug to the Australian government, in the hope that it could aid the country’s Covid-19 response, if trials proved it to be an effective treatment.
The commonwealth took about 22.4m doses into its stockpile by June but its enthusiasm for the drug waned, given mounting evidence of its ineffectiveness as a Covid-19 treatment.
The government told Palmer it wouldn’t take any more donations in May, according to documents obtained by the journalist William Summers for Guardian Australia.
But a final batch of 1,118kg of hydroxychloroquine sulfate, the equivalent of about 5m doses, arrived in Melbourne airport on 14 August last year, leading to a standoff between the billionaire and the Therapeutic Goods Administration over who should have to deal with it.
Tracking records show the hydroxychloroquine was checked into a warehouse in Melbourne at 8am on 14 August and declared ready for pickup on 31 October.
The Palmer Foundation told the TGA chief, 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”. Skerritt responded that, given his prior warnings, the commonwealth was “unable to take possession of this material”.
Guardian Australia has now learned that the drug – which has legitimate uses as an antimalarial, and to treat rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and porphyria cutanea tarda – sat unclaimed for eight months.
In April this year the hydroxychloroquine was sent for destruction, Guardian Australia understands. It is also understood that regulations on the handling of medicines prevented the freight handler from either selling or donating the hydroxychloroquine elsewhere.
Palmer said he had no knowledge of what had happened to the shipment.
“All [hydroxychloroquine] was donated t [sic] the Commonwealth prior to its shipment to Australia, you need to check with them on knowledge of other matters,” he said in a text.
It is not suggested that Palmer directed that the drug be destroyed.
The health department is understood to be similarly unaware of where the final shipment ended up. It was not received into the national medical stockpile.
A spokesperson said the government had not used any of the previous donations, which means 22m doses are still sitting in the national medical stockpile.
“The department has not deployed any of the hydroxychloroquine from the National Medical Stockpile as it has not been approved for use as a Covid-19 treatment in Australia by the TGA and there have not been any requests to utilise this in an approved clinical trial,” a spokesperson said.
Palmer appears to have sourced the drug from Xian Harmonious Natural Biotech, a pharmaceutical company based in central China.
On Saturday Guardian Australia revealed that Palmer had requested that his name and logo be printed on the 33m doses of hydroxychloroquine. Correspondence obtained using freedom of information laws showed he would source the drug on the condition that a “small copy” of the Palmer Foundation logo was printed on the packets, along with a message stating they had been “donated by the Palmer Foundation for the benefit of the Australian people”.
The department refused the request. It instead suggested that the health minister, Greg Hunt, could publicly thank Palmer for his contribution.
On 30 March last year, early on in the pandemic, Skerritt thanked Palmer “for what you are doing to secure … a medicine which may prove important as a treatment for Covid-19”.
Palmer took out a three-page advertisement in News Corp publications telling the nation he had bought 32.9m doses of the drug “so it may be available free to all Australians”.