"What do you have to lose?" Donald Trump asked rhetorically at a press briefing on Saturday. He was talking about hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, which is also approved to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and which the president has latched on to as a miracle cure for coronavirus. Even if it's not, he says, coronavirus patients who are likely to die should go for it. "Take it. I really think they should take it. But it's their choice. And it's their doctor's choice or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine. Try it, if you'd like."
For now, there's limited evidence that hydroxychloroquine can help with mild cases of coronavirus, but that evidence is either anecdotal or based on questionable studies, some without control groups. Speaking to Face the Nation on CBS Sunday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, "There have been cases that show there may be an effect, and there are others to show there's no effect. So, I think in terms of science, I don't think we could definitively say it works."
The president's hawking of the drug has caused people to hoard it, forcing the Lupus Foundation of America to issue a statement begging the White House Covid-19 response team to make sure that patients who definitely need hydroxychloroquine can still get it. At least two people ingested chloroquine fish-tank cleaner, thinking it was hydroxychloroquine—one man in Arizona died as a result.
There are other dangers to off-label use of the drug. Hydroxychloroquine can also cause arrhythmia that leads to a heart attack. Speaking to The Washington Post, Mark Gladwin of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine warned that hydroxychloroquine hasn't been tested enough for doctors to know how much to give individual patients. And since the drug potentially interferes with heart contractions, it's vital to know what other drugs a patient is on, something that's becoming harder and harder as hospitals get overwhelmed. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Brown University, also told The New York Times, "It causes psychiatric symptoms, cardiac problems and a host of other bad side effects."
So why has Trump become so fixated on this drug? The idea that hydroxychloroquine could treat coronavirus started to take root in the U.S. in Silicon Valley in mid-March, as Wired documented at the time. On March 13, a blockchain investor named James Todaro tweeted, "There is growing evidence of Chloroquine as a highly effective treatment for COVID-19," and linked to a Google Doc he and others wrote making the case. One of his coauthors, lawyer Gregory Rigano, went on Laura Ingraham's Fox News show to promote the idea on March 16. And the next day, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted to his 33 million followers, "Maybe worth considering chloroquine for C19," followed by "Hydroxychloroquine probably better." The message was retweeted 13,700 times.
The first time Trump mentioned the drug was at a March 19 press briefing, where he said of it, "It's been around for a long time, so we know if things don't go as planned, it's not going to kill anybody." By March 21, he was much more enthusiastic, tweeting, "HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine."
According to Media Matters, from March 23–29, Fox aired claims promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine 147 times, while only airing 18 claims questioning its effectiveness. Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz—who has promoted dubious weight-loss scams and whose children are unvaccinated—has appeared on Fox News more than 20 times in two weeks hyping the drug. Oz points to one dubious French study from Marseille in particular, conducted by Didier Raoult, a French doctor who has previously questioned the validity of both climate change and evolution.
In regards to that French study, last week the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy warned that it "does not meet the Society’s expected standard." While the Society didn't elaborate, that might be because the study didn't meet any standards for a trustworthy clinical trial—the standard usually being double-blinded, randomized, and controlled. As the Guardian notes, in studies like this, neither the doctor nor the patients know who is receiving a placebo or the drug being tested, the researchers don't get to choose who is in the test or control groups, and both groups are roughly equivalent, like, say, they're around the same age. Raoult's experiment followed none of those guidelines, with researchers, doctors, and patients all knowing which patients received hydroxychloroquine, and a 20-year difference in the average age of the two groups.
Despite all of these red flags, Oz told Fox News host Sean Hannity on March 25 that he'd informed the White House about this potential miracle cure, and said on Fox & Friends that he'd persuaded Seema Verma, Trump's head of Medicare and Medicaid, to start investigating it too.
There's a lot of enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine coming from inside the Trump administration too. Peter Navarro—the national Defense Production Act policy coordinator who believes, among other things, that a decline in manufacturing causes increases in abortions, infertility, and spousal abuse—is absolutely convinced the drug is an effective treatment, according to Axios. On Saturday, at a Covid-19 task-force meeting, Navarro, an economist, became incensed when Fauci, the country's premier infectious-disease expert, pointed out that only anecdotal evidence exists so far.
Trump may also have financial incentive for promoting the drug, according to the investigative website Sludge. The conservative dark-money group Job Creators Network has been circulating a petition via text message and on Facebook, begging Trump to cut the "red tape" around hydroxychloroquine and claiming, "There is clear and ever-mounting evidence that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can significantly help patients who contract coronavirus." Job Creators Network was founded in 2011 by conservative billionaire Home Depot cofounder Bernard Marcus, who spent more than $7 million in 2016 to get Trump elected and vowed to put up more money for his re-election. The group is also funded by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a consortium of drug manufacturers including Novartis, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Bayer—all three of which make hydroxychloroquine and stand to profit enormously if the demand for the drug explodes. Trump himself is personally invested in Sanofi, a French drug manufacturer that makes a name-brand version of hydroxychloroquine, according to The New York Times.
Of course, the president has been concerned with the fallout of the pandemic, particularly as it pertains to the stock market, which has already taken a beating as a result of the outbreak—the S&P dropped so hard so fast in early March that trading was suspended multiple times over the course of a week, and the Dow Jones had its worst first quarter in history. Trump was previously pushing for Americans to stop sheltering in place and return to work the day after Easter, when he hoped to see "packed churches," though he's backed off that as both the stock market and death toll have risen. But he still seems to be hoping for a magical solution to present itself, like when he claimed coronavirus would just vanish on its own "like a miracle," and that it would probably disappear by April.
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Originally Appeared on GQ