A dangerous video spreading misinformation about a cure and treatment for COVID-19 circulated on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube yesterday.
Live streamed by the media outlet Breitbart, the video depicts a group of experts who claim to be “America’s Frontline Doctors” at a press conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. They say that Americans are captured by fear of the novel coronavirus— but there's no need to be scared because hydroxychloroquine treats and prevents COVID-19. The video was seen by millions of people before it was pulled by all three channels for violating their misinformation policies, BBC reports.
The message is appealing, but wrong, according to John Whyte, M.D., MPH, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD.
"These types of videos are very dangerous to public health and this epidemic," says Dr. Whyte.
There's no telling how many people now believe these inaccuracies. But the video garnered more than 17 million views on Facebook in just eight hours, Breitbart reports.
Encouraging millions of people to take a prescription medication for an unproven reason can damage people's health, says Dr. Whyte. Here's what you should know about the three most problematic claims.
Claim: Taking hydroxychloroquine protects you from COVID-19.
Truth: No pharmacological or at-home treatments prevent COVID-19.
In the video, Stella Immanuel, M.D., a primary care physician in Texas, says that Americans can resume their normal lives by preemptively taking hydroxychloroquine, a medication that treats malaria. The drug was used as a precaution to President Donald Trump and as a treatment by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Business Insider reports.
"You want to open schools? Everybody get on hydroxychloroquine," Dr. Immanuel says in the video. She recommends taking one tablet every other week as a safeguard against the disease.
However, there is no scientific evidence indicating that hydroxychloroquine protects against the novel coronavirus, says Dr. Whyte.
In fact, people who took the medication still got sick after being exposed to COVID-19, according to a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine. It's important not to confuse this study with another paper that was published—and later retracted—from the same journal. That research was by different authors and looked at different outcomes.
Further, Dr Whyte questions the reasoning behind Dr. Immanuel's dosing recommendation. Clinical trials reveal whether a medication is dangerous or effective in specific strengths. Those studies haven't been done.
"That’s why you do trials to come up with a dosing regimen," says Dr. Whyte. Trial-and-error dosing is just dangerous.
Claim: Hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19.
Truth: There is no magical cure for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
More than 147,000 Americans have died of the novel coronavirus. According to Dr. Immanuel, this could have been avoided if everyone was treated with hydroxychloroquine.
“This virus has a cure, it’s called hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and Zithromax,” she says. Believing that, Dr. Immanuel also dangerously claims that masks are unnecessary because people can rely on hydroxychloroquine.
"It is unprofessional to say there is a cure for COVID or a proven way to prevent COVID through the use of a pill," says Dr. Whyte.
Last month, the National Institutes of Health ended a study looking at whether the drug offered any benefit to patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial was halted early because hydroxychloroquine didn't shorten hospital stays, lessen the length or severity of illness, or reduce mortality in COVID patients, according to a statement by NIH.
As for people who did get better while taking the drug, Dr. Whyte says,"They could have gotten better for a lot of other reasons." This trial suggests the drug wasn't a significant factor.
Just weeks ago, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., said hydroxychloroquine shouldn't be used—period.
According to Dr. Gottlieb, research doesn't support taking the pill as a prophylaxis or treatment.
"So I don't think anyone should be using it right now, pending results of another study that might demonstrate that there is, in fact, a benefit, because the margin of all the data we've gotten from all the credible studies really shows no benefit and, in some cases, increased risk," he told CBS News.
Claim: Hydroxychloroquine should be sold over the counter.
Truth: Prescription medications have side effects and should only be used under the supervision of a doctor.
Several experts in the Breitbart video claim that hydroxychloroquine should be available as an OTC medication. But using a drug without your doctor's OK can be dangerous. All medications have side effects and taking them for reasons outside their intended use can be harmful, says Dr. Whyte.
"People can have a reaction to just one dose of a drug. It happens," says Dr. Whyte. "Why would you take a medicine that you don’t know works but is still having some effect on your body?"
In June, the FDA revoked the emergency use authorization (EUA) of hydroxychloroquine, which allowed doctors to treat COVID patients with the drug despite support from clinical trials. The agency claimed the medication does not help people get over COVID-19 and warns that some patients may experience serious heart rhythm problems after taking the drug. Without an EUA, physicians can still prescribe treatment for off-label purposes, but they can't access the Strategic National Stockpile, a reserve of drugs for public health emergencies, WIRED reports.
Unfortunately, hydroxychloroquine isn't a magic pill—and promoting that over known preventative measures is dangerous. This is especially true when suggesting that we abandon those known preventative measures that are credited for bringing down case rates in states including hard-hit New York.
Wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing are our best defense against the novel coronavirus, says Dr. Whyte.
"Those are the elements that we know are working," he says. "Nothing is 100 percent. Nothing is a cure right now."
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