President Donald Trump defended his support for hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 on Tuesday despite the fact that its effectiveness remains scientifically unproven. The drug can be deadly and should only be taken under medical supervision.
“A lot of people are taking it. A lot of doctors are taking it,” Trump alleged from the White House during an afternoon Cabinet meeting.
“It’s got a very bad reputation only because I’m promoting it, so I’m obviously a very bad promoter,” he added.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar backed up Trump’s comments, defending the president’s “right to try” the drug for himself.
Trump made the shocking claim on Monday that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for weeks as a way to ward off the coronavirus.
A Monday memo from the president’s White House physician, Sean Conley, stated that he had “numerous” discussions with Trump “regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine,” eventually concluding that “the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risk.” But Conley did not explicitly confirm Trump’s assertion that he was receiving the medication. How the president may be taking the drug is also unclear.
Trump’s wholehearted promotion of hydroxychloroquine has riled doctors and public health authorities because its use against the coronavirus has not yet been studied enough to be sure any benefits outweigh potential harms. (Studies are currently taking place.)
While hydroxychloroquine itself is not new ― it was developed in the 1940s ― using it against COVID-19 is. The drug is normally prescribed to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases. Due to the absence of any proven COVID-19 treatment or vaccine, though, some doctors have given the drug to coronavirus patients.
Neither the National Institutes of Health nor the Food and Drug Administration, however, officially recommend the drug as a treatment for COVID-19. Both warn that people who take hydroxychloroquine can experience heart problems and state that no one should take it without a prescription from a doctor.
So far, studies of the drug’s use against COVID-19 have generally been small and inconclusive, per the NIH. Scant few have been peer-reviewed.
On Tuesday, Trump attacked one particularly negative bit of research involving patients at Veterans Health Administration facilities, calling it “a phony study.” The president objected to the subject pool, saying they were people “ready to die” and “had bad problems with hearts.” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie also criticized the research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
But the study using VA data was not the first to raise concerns about the negative effects of hydroxychloroquine. Dr. Rick Bright contends his abrupt ouster as head of HHS’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority was due to his repeated, strenuous warnings about the drug. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease, has also urged caution on the basis that more information is needed.
Another of Trump’s promotional assertions about hydroxychloroquine was that it’s being used “by thousands and thousands of front-line workers so that hopefully they don’t catch this disease or whatever you want to call it.”
Some health care workers are taking the drug in studies to determine whether it can protect them from contracting the virus. But the results are yet unknown.