A debate may be raging inside the White House about the efficacy of an anti-malaria drug to treat the novel coronavirus, but the Trump administration isn’t waiting for a resolution. Two federal agencies have already placed purchase orders for the drug.
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons have both reported purchases of hydroxychloroquine since March 26, according to federal procurement records.
The Department of Veterans Affairs purchased $40,000 in hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets from the pharmaceutical company McKesson, and another $168,000 from the Colorado-based generic drug distributor Golden State Medical Supply. Procurement records for both list them as “emergency” purchase orders to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
The Bureau of Prisons’ purchase order does not mention the coronavirus. But the $60,000 purchase of hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets from the company Premium Rx National came on March 31—in the midst of a worsening outbreak at the federal correctional facilities that the bureau oversees and days before President Trump announced that he was stockpiling millions of pills of the drug. It appears to be the first time that the BOP has purchased the drug.
Neither the VA nor BOP responded to requests for additional information about the purchases, and how, or whether, they would be used in the near-term to treat coronavirus patients.
The use of taxpayer money on hydroxychloroquine by the two agencies came in spite of a heated debate among policymakers and medical professionals about the drug’s effectiveness in treating the virus, and the possibility that a sudden surge in demand for the drug could diminish the supply for those who use it to treat other ailments such as malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
That dispute erupted at a closed-door meeting at the White House on Saturday, as first reported by Axios. At that meeting, White House economic adviser Peter Navarro reportedly clashed with National Institute of Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci over the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment.
Trump, for his part, has consistently promoted the drug as a potential panacea in efforts to control the virus. Despite only anecdotal evidence that it has any impact, his supporters have cast dissenting voices as timid at best and hostile at worst.
The Food and Drug Administration last week issued an emergency authorization that will allow the distribution of hydroxychloroquine and similar experimental drugs to the general public from the federal government’s stockpile of medical supplies. Two drug companies, Novartis and Bayer, donated more than 30 million doses to the stockpile, which appears to be what Trump was referring to when he discussed building a stockpile on Sunday.
The Department of Health and Human Services also recently approved hydroxychloroquine and two similar drugs, chloroquine and hydrochloroquine, for “compassionate use,” making them available to extremely ill patients who have exhausted other treatment options.
Local governments such as New York and Michigan have reported promising anecdotal results from the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus. But it has scant scientific backing. The University of Marseilles study most often cited by the drug’s boosters received pushback from other academics in the field, and the journal in which it was published said last week that the study “does not meet the Society’s expected standard.”
Many Trump-friendly pundits, however, are convinced of the drug’s effectiveness, most notably those on Fox News shows from which the president is known to take policy cues.