Trump is touting experimental drugs for COVID-19, saying they're 'not going to hurt' people. But the drugs have severe side effects, and misuse has led to poisoning and even death.

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President Donald Trump at a press briefing with members of the White House coronavirus task force on Sunday.
President Donald Trump at a press briefing with members of the White House coronavirus task force on Sunday.

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

  • President Donald Trump has repeatedly endorsed two experimental drugs as a treatment for COVID-19.

  • The drugs — chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine — are often used for the prevention and treatment of certain types of malaria as well as for rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and a few other conditions.

  • "It's not going to hurt people," he argued during a press briefing on Sunday. "It can help them, but it's not going to hurt them."

  • But Trump's assurance to Americans that the drugs come without serious risks contradicts medical experts who have warned against using the medications without a prescription, as they have been found to cause harmful side effects.

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President Donald Trump used his daily press briefing on Sunday to enthusiastically endorse two experimental drugs as treatments for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The drugs — chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine — are often used for the prevention and treatment of certain types of malaria. They are also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and a few other conditions.

"It's a powerful drug on malaria, and there are scientific works on this. Some strong signs," Trump said, adding that the US had a stockpile of over 29 million hydroxychloroquine pills of that might be used to treat COVID-19.

"What do you have to lose?" he said repeatedly, at one point adding: "If it does work, it would be a shame if we didn't do it early."

He went on to directly argue that hydroxychloroquine was safe even if it failed to treat COVID-19.

"It's not going to hurt people," he said. "It can help them, but it's not going to hurt them. That's the beauty of it. You see? It can help them, but it's not going to hurt them. What do you have to lose? OK."

Trump doubled down on his endorsement of the medications later in the press conference, arguing that using the untested drugs outweighed any risk.

"It doesn't kill people," he said, adding, "We don't have time to go and say, gee, let's take a couple of years and test it out."

While large trials are underway, however, there is no clinical evidence so far that proves these drugs are effective against COVID-19. And Trump's assurance to Americans that the drugs come without serious risks comes contradicts medical experts who have warned against using the medications without a prescription, as they have been found to cause harmful side effects.

Researchers have experimented with treating the virus using numerous drugs approved for other uses. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for use in experimental COVID-19 treatment.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a press release, however, that clinical trials were still needed "to provide scientific evidence that these treatments are effective."

Anecdotal evidence has indicated that the drugs helped COVID-19 patients, though there have not been any peer-reviewed or clinical data confirming it. There are not yet any approved treatments or vaccines for the disease.

Short-term side effects of the medication include nausea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. Serious side effects or prolonged treatment include liver failure, hearing loss, and muscle paralysis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last month against taking the drug without medical supervision, as some people took nonpharmaceutical chloroquine phosphate, a chemical used to clean home aquariums, instead of the medications approved by the FDA.

"Chloroquine phosphate, when used without a prescription and supervision of a healthcare provider, can cause serious health consequences, including death," the CDC said last week. "Currently, these medications are being studied and evaluated as treatment for COVID-19; however, their efficacy to either prevent or treat this infection are unknown."

The CDC added that overdosing on the medication or taking it inappropriately could lead to severe toxicity.

A man in Arizona died after self-medicating with fish-tank cleaner that contained chloroquine phosphate, according to Arizona's nonprofit health system Banner Health.

"Given the uncertainty around COVID-19, we understand that people are trying to find new ways to prevent or treat this virus, but self-medicating is not the way to do so," Dr. Daniel Brooks, the medical director of Banner Poison and Drug Information Center, said in the press release.

Nigeria has also recorded cases of chloroquine poisoning after Trump's endorsement, according to CNN. And a 2018 review article warned that the drug could cause neurological side effects in some people.

Even those within Trump's close circle are skeptical about Trump's endorsement of the drug have warned of the risks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is a member of Trump's White House coronavirus task force, told CBS' "Face the Nation" earlier Sunday that evidence of the drug's effectiveness against COVID-19 was anecdotal.

"In terms of science, I don't think we could definitively say it works," he said.

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