Mylan (NASDAQ:MYL) has restarted production of its hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets at its West Virginia manufacturing facility as a potential treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The company plans to have product available by mid-April and thinks it can ramp up to 50 million tablets, which could treat more than 1.5 million people.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, a less toxic metabolite of chloroquine, are antiviral medications that are approved to treat malaria. Because it's less toxic and has anti-inflammatory properties, hydroxychloroquine is also approved to treat a pair of auto-immune disorders, lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis.

An article published in the journal Cell Research in February showed that chloroquine inhibited the 2019-nCoV coronavirus as well as Gilead Sciences' (NASDAQ:GILD) remdesivir in an experiment testing how well the virus infects cells grown in a laboratory. Gilead is running a late-stage clinical trial of remdesivir as a COVID-19 treatment, but since it hasn't been approved for any diseases, remdesivir isn't as widely available as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

Scientist working in a laboratory

Image source: Getty Images.

This week, some of those same researchers published research in Cell Discovery comparing chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, showing chloroquine was more active than hydroxychloroquine, but the lower toxicity of hydroxychloroquine could allow it to be dosed at a higher level and make up for the lower activity. The anti-inflammatory property of hydroxychloroquine could also make the drug more effective since some patients with COVID-19 have had overactive immune systems that result in a cytokine storm where the immune system starts attacking the patient's own cells.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been around for decades and are available as generics, so Mylan isn't likely to make very much selling generic hydroxychloroquine. Bayer (OTC:BAYR.Y) is donating 3 million tablets of chloroquine to the U.S. government for potential use as a treatment for COVID-19.