President Trump was grilled Tuesday about his flogging of an anti-malaria drug as a coronavirus treatment after a government-funded study showed it didn’t help veterans and was associated with more deaths.
“I don’t know of the report,” he said at the daily briefing by the coronavirus task force. “Obviously there have been some very good reports and perhaps this one’s not a good report—but we’ll be looking at it.”
The research released earlier on Tuesday, which has not yet been peer-reviewed but was backed by the National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia, is the latest evidence that hydroxychloroquine is not the magic bullet that Trump and his allies suggested it was.
“In this study, we found no evidence that use of hydroxychloroquine, either with or without azithromycin, reduced the risk of mechanical ventilation in patients hospitalized with Covid-19,” the authors wrote.
In fact, the analysis of data from 368 patients at veterans hospitals found 28 percent of those who got it died—compared to 11 percent who received the standard treatment without the drug. And 22 percent of the patients who got hydroxychloroquine plus the antibiotic azithromycin died.
“Specifically, hydroxychloroquine use with or without co-administration of azithromycin did not improve mortality or reduce the need for mechanical ventilation in hospitalized patients,” they wrote. “On the contrary, hydroxychloroquine use alone was associated with an increased risk of mortality compared to standard care alone.”
The authors said it was not clear why the group that got the drug had a higher death rate, but they noted that a Brazil study on the analog chloroquine was halted because some of the patients developed heart problems.
The team acknowledged that patients who got hydroxychlroquine were likely to be among the most critically ill, but even accounting for that, the death rate was outsize.
Two other small studies, one in France and one in China, also found hydroxychloroquine was no better than standard therapies. The authors of the VA analysis said their limited study shows how data from clinical trials is desperately needed before hydroxychloroquine could be considered a useful weapon in the fight against COVID-19.
In fact, they suggested medical providers exercise caution before trying it.
Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn said at the Tuesday briefing that while there are 30 clinical trials underway, the results are not expected until early summer. He said that the veterans study was too small and preliminary to “help us make a decision from a regulatory point of view.”
But, he added, the study results are something doctors should take into consideration when deciding whether to prescribe hydroxychloroquine to a COVID-19 patient.
Although Trump talked up hydroxychloroquine so often in his briefings that they began to resemble infomercials, in the last week or so he has abandoned his hype, and conservative media is no longer beating the hydroxychloroquine drum.
But at the height of Trump’s hydroxychloroquine fever, the federal government bought millions of doses. One side effect of that rush to judgment: Americans who use the drug to treat illnesses like lupus face shortages.
Interest in hydroxychloroquine peaked in mid-March when it began to pick up celebrity endorsements from the likes of Elon Musk, who tweeted that “it may be worth considering” following some early Chinese research into the drug.
French researcher Didier Raoult helped rocket the anti-malarial to international prominence and Trump’s Twitter feed with a study of chloroquine and azithromycin. Raoult claimed the two produced “promising” results in COVID-19 patients, which, he claimed, “open the possibility of an international strategy to decisionmakers to fight this emerging viral infection in real-time.”
But Raoult’s study came under intense criticism for its design and small sample size—and the International Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which published the article, later issued a statement saying it “does not meet the Society’s expected standard.” Remarkably, the criticism did not dull the celebrity endorsements with Dr. Oz and Laura Ingraham touting the drug on Fox News.